By Rob Matuga and Christian Culligan
In the construction industry, workplace safety efforts have often focused on eliminating the most-common causes of on-the-job accidents, such as falls, being struck by or caught in-between objects, electrocutions, or being exposed to hazardous chemicals and substances. For more than two decades, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has been at the forefront of enhancing physical safety and health in residential construction. NAHB takes proactive steps to keep members and affiliated state and local associations informed and educated about safety and health issues and trends affecting the building industry, including developing safety and health resources to help builders and contractors operate safe jobsites and lower workers’ compensation costs.
However, we recently have learned that construction workers are particularly susceptible to mental health issues and suicide – which is a silent killer in construction, and we know that the home building industry is not immune to the issues in the construction industry at large. We also know that industry associations have a role to play in promoting the importance of worker health and well-being to their member organizations. Helping to create sustainable workplaces and healthy, thriving professionals strengthens the industry and deepens the volunteer leadership bench. In addition to the benefits to the association, workplace well-being is good for employee health and retention, may reduce the cost of insurance, sick time, and employee turnover, and increase productivity. This can be accomplished by addressing mental well-being as part of overall safety – both physical and psychological.
How big is this problem of mental health and suicides in construction? According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), the construction industry has one of the highest rates of death by suicide compared to other industries. In 2017, the suicide rate for construction workers was 53.3 per 100,000 workers, which is nearly five times greater than the rate for all fatal work-related injuries in construction (9.5 per 100,000 workers) from the physical hazards companies focus on eliminating.
The statistics show a troubling trend – that suicide is a serious issue in the construction industry that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. There is likely a link between working in the construction industry and mental health issues. Historically, mental health and suicide have not been considered safety priorities – until now. The reason suicide has not widely concerned safety professionals before is that most suicide deaths do not occur at the workplace, and thus were not considered work-related fatalities. Today, we know different, and there are many things workplaces can do to prioritize suicide prevention and mental health promotion within their health and safety programs.
Construction can be a great job; however, there are many factors that contribute to suicide, and evidence has shown that the construction industry poses high risks for physical and mental stresses. Poor physical conditions often have a detrimental effect on one’s behavioral health. Construction workers can face fatigue, obesity, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, and chronic pain. Moreover, a construction worker’s physical condition can contribute additional burdens to their mental health and well-being. Social isolation and loneliness, stress and anxiety, depression, propensity for risk taking, heavy/binge drinking, substance misuse, and suicide are some of the key behavioral health conditions that must be recognized by our industry’s forefront in order to help our construction workers attain better lives.
The financial well-being of a construction worker also can add major stressors to a person’s life. Most workers in the field are paid on an hourly basis. This means if work is canceled due to inclement weather, project schedule, or other delays, there is no pay. The industry also is affected heavily by the flow of the economy. End-of-project furloughs and seasonal layoffs can add anxiety to a worker because that next payday is unknown. Financial burdens are one of the top reasons suicide rates are higher today.
So, what can construction companies do to address the mental health and well-being of the workforce? Raising awareness is a place to start. Employers easily can access more information through construction industry trade associations, as well as the government, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which can help them create their own programs, trainings, and other support resources related to workers.
Finally, one of the most important tools to help in the fight against mental health issues is training and education. Construction firms utilize safety training to help workers identifying safety hazards and understand safety practices and expectations. Why not add a mental health component? Educating workers about common mental health conditions can help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and substance abuse issues and help them spot warning signs so they can seek help they may need.
To help identify and understand key issues surrounding mental health and substance misuse, NAHB has partnered with leading experts to develop tools, especially for members to identify and learn more about mental health and addiction issues. First is the mental health screening tool, which is an anonymous, confidential, and quick way to determine if you or someone you care about should connect with a behavioral health professional – a checkup from your neck up. The second are five-minute lessons on the most-important concepts and facts regarding addiction where you learn who’s at risk and how to know if a person has a substance use disorder, which may sharply increase symptoms of mental illness or trigger new symptoms. These can be accessed at nahb.org/advocacy/industry-issues/Safety-and-Health/Mental-Wellbeing.
Encouraging open and honest conversations about mental health is a first step in improving overall worker safety and health. Taking some simple steps, companies can work to create safer and healthier workplaces and address both the physical and mental needs of workers.
For additional resources about mental health and substance misuse, check out the tools available at
Rob Matuga is the assistant vice president for NAHB Labor, Safety, and Health Policy Department. Christian Culligan is the safety program manager for NAHB Labor, Safety, and Health Policy Department.