Construction Industry Unites to Tackle Suicide

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By Sean Forbes

At construction conferences in San Diego and Hawaii, Asif Choudury had a great time getting together with Bruce Tabler, both board members of the Construction Financial Management Association.

Choudury remembered carousing with Tabler and other colleagues when they were at the CFMA’s summer 2013 conference in San Diego, “clowning around til 4 in the morning, overloading some poor guy with a rickshaw” in the city’s Gaslamp Quarter. “There was hootin’ and hollerin’, just having a good time, no real issues. We had some good food, good times.”

By November of that year, his friend was no longer in the joking mood. And when Choudury, president of Bahar Consulting LLC in Washington, learned several months later that his friend had taken his own life, he was completely unprepared.

“It was devastating to me,” Choudury told Bloomberg BNA. “It really was. I was in complete shock.”

Getting to Zero

How Tabler died is far too common in the construction industry. Across all industries, the suicide rate in the construction and extraction industries (53.3 suicide deaths out of a population of 100,000 individuals) is second only to farming/fishing/forestry (84.5), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a report released last summer. The CDC report was the first to look at suicide rates by industry.

Although men outpace women for the raw numbers of suicides in construction and extraction, those two industries have the highest rate of suicides for women (134.3 out of every 100,000 women), according to a study of suicides by industry in Colorado.

The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention is aiming to turn those suicide rates to zero.

The recently formed alliance, which began with the CFMA, issued a blueprint in which it diagnoses risk factors and offers tools to help companies address the challenges. The blueprint came out of a public-private partnership with the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, in Washington.

The CIASP is also beginning work on putting together an “action-oriented” resource guide, Cal Beyer, director of risk management for Issaquah, Wash.-based Lakeside Industries, told Bloomberg BNA. Beyer is an executive committee member of the NAASP. Lakeside contributed to the blueprint. The blueprint is intended as a high-level document, while the resource guide will be used when it comes time to talk with workers, he said.

Stuart Binstock, CFMA’s president and chief executive officer, told Bloomberg BNA that his organization sees itself as the catalyst to bring up the conversation, while bringing in mental health and suicide prevention experts to partner with its members.

Tackling the Topic

Turning back the tide starts with getting people to confront the topic head on, Beyer said. Many in the industry still aren’t aware of the prevalence of suicide or suicide risk, he said.

When Beyer spoke at a recent regional summit on preventing suicide in the construction industry, audience members were “somber,” he said. But at the break, they approached him and said, “Wow, I had no idea.”

But the CDC’s results weren’t surprising to the suicide prevention community, even if they were to everybody else, Sally Spencer-Thomas, chief executive officer and co-founder of the Carson J. Spencer Foundation, in Denver, told Bloomberg BNA.

“It’s mostly middle-aged men who die by suicide, and more so middle-aged white men that have high rates and high numbers,” Spencer-Thomas said. Those are the demographics of many who work in construction.

Construction also has a traditional workforce, with often no consistent health insurance, no employee assistance programs and inconsistent paychecks, she said. And because of the nature of the job, workers often get through their days in constant pain, a factor that has led to construction being the number one industry for opioid addiction, she said.

Additional factors that affect women include a sense of needing to prove oneself in a male-dominated climate and being subject to bullying and harassment, Spencer-Thomas said.

Normalizing the conversation about suicide is also crucial, Jeff Leieritz, senior media relations manager for the Washington-based Associated Builders and Contractors, which recently joined the alliance, told Bloomberg BNA.

“One of our main goals in joining the alliance is to really make these conversations more normal and more natural, to have conversations around mental health,” Leieritz said. “From my personal experience, having a loss to suicide, those conversations are difficult to have, but vital.”

As ManTherapy.org, a site designed to help men with their mental health, puts it, “You can’t fix your mental health with duct tape.”

The alliance held its first suicide prevention summit in April in Phoenix, has held several since then around the country and has lined up many more for 2017.

The Phoenix event was the start of an industry movement, Beyer said. Ultimately, his movement wants to reach out to the small employers within the industry, to get to the swimming pool contractors, cabinet re-facers and home plumbers, he said.

The alliance currently has 17 member organizations and plans to continue growing, Choudury said. “It’s all about raising awareness.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Forbes in Washington at sforbes@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer at jmeyer@bna.com

For More Information

The CIASP's blueprint is at http://src.bna.com/kV3.

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