By Kalinga Seneviratne
SYDNEY (IDN) — It is news, when a worker falls off a construction site and dies, but not necessarily when a construction worker commits suicide. It may be a slow and quiet death, which the employers and the workers’ family may not like to talk about.
In the USA, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that in 2018 there were 1,008 construction fatalities, but there were also 48,344 suicides by construction workers that year, which went largely unnoticed.
The construction industry has the highest fatalities due to risks in the workplace. Added to that, is the fact that most workers come from lower socioeconomic and educational backgrounds—which is a global phenomenon.
“Construction is an industry with high levels of pain—chronic pain, in particular—, the definition of misery. Because of this, construction is also the industry with the highest use of prescribed opioids,” says Dr Sally Spenser-Thomas, professional speaker, podcaster and impact entrepreneur.
In the UK, research by Glasgow Caledonian University and the Lighthouse Club found that the number of suicides per 100,000 for construction workers rose from 26 to 29 in the four years to 2019. And, according to the Office for National Statistics, more than 1,400 construction workers committed suicide in the UK between 2011 and 2017—more than three times the national average for men. Poor mental health is regarded as the biggest cause of death in the construction industry.
A recent exclusive report in ‘The Urban Developer’ (TUD)—Australia’s property and urban development industry newsletter—said that the construction industry in the country is the industry with the highest rate of male suicides in the country. Men in the construction industry are 53 per cent more likely to die by suicide than other employed males in this country. That’s more than 190 construction workers a year.
Research commissioned by the national suicide prevention group ‘Mates in Construction’ has found that death by suicide in the sector is six times higher than death due to site accidents. Brad Parker, New South Wales chief executive of the organization, believes that over 90 per cent of construction workers who had committed suicide in the past “had never sought professional help”.
The construction sector is Australia’s third largest industry after mining and finance, and it contributes to 8 per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). It also employs over 1 million people making up about 9 per cent of Australia’s total workforce. Between 2001 and 2018 there have been 3621 recorded suicides of construction workers in Australia.
‘Mates In Construction’ case manager Kayte Wilson notes that there is a “she’ll be right” attitude that exists in the workforce. “There’s a stigma for men talking to others about psychological stress and their feelings if they’re not coping,” Wilson told TUD, adding that the spiral can start from a relationship break down, or any kind of loss, from a loved one to gambling. And this was the case for up to 80-90 per cent of the males she spoke to. “Your relationship ends and next you’ve got unexpected financial problems… And suddenly you don’t know which way is up,” she said, pointing out that job insecurity was also a factor.
“It’s the only industry I know where they work excruciatingly long hours only to work themselves out of a job—every six months,” she said. “They work their heart out and then the job ends.”
It is a similar story related by UK construction worker Andy Stevens to ‘Construction Europe’ (CE), Europe’s construction industry magazine. He has tried to take his own life when he was confronted with a barrage of problems at home and work. “It’s often the trades like scaffolding, bricklaying and ground workers. Some go to work to escape troubles in their home lives then you get pressure from your boss and the whole thing snowballs out of control,” Stevens said.
Similar figures of construction worker suicides like in the UK, USA and Australia are also found in Ireland and Sweden. The Construction Industry Federation of Ireland has found that men working in the construction and production industries accounted for nearly half of all male deaths by suicide. Maria Åberg, assistant professor of public health and community medicine at the University of Gothenberg, is currently carrying out research into suicide rates in the Swedish construction industry
“I’ve been in the industry for well over 35 years working on projects, but I never thought about mental health,” Greg Sizemore, vice president of health, safety, environment and workforce development at Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) told CE. “Our industry has done a great job in reducing safety incidents on site. We’ve made great strides in improving the physical health of employees. But we need to blend that with improving mental health and focus more on total human health”.
Migrant construction workers especially in the Middle East and in Asia face the added problem of modern-day slavery that drives them to suicide. Often recruitment agents have driven them into a relationship of bonded labour with illegal debt servicing which deprives them of income—especially in the first years of employment overseas—and when they are unable to send back money to feed their families and no help is forthcoming from anyone in a foreign country, this helplessness drives them to suicide.
The death of an Indian worker on a World Cup construction site in Qatar in 2016 drew global attention to this problem. Scaffolder Ajaya Behara, 44, hanged himself in the basement of the Doha Exhibition and Convention Center weeks after asking his employer to pay outstanding wages and renew his expired visa, according to his family and co-workers. But the employer said that the suicide did not relate to his employment conditions.
At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in Singapore last year, when thousands of infected migrant construction workers were locked up in their crowded dormitories, the longevity of restrictions on their mobility and the emotional toll was demonstrated, when a video of a migrant worker on the ledge of his high-rise dormitory window went viral on social media. This raised concerns within wider civil society about the emotional toll of migrant workers housed in cramped conditions—a point NGOs have raised for some time.
Here in Australia, ‘Mates in Construction’—a charity founded in 2008—is leading the way in addressing the mental health problems of construction workers. The charity, with the aim of reducing suicide rates in the Australian state of Queensland, provides a programme of on-site suicide prevention training to workers in the construction industry. They have trained more than 230,000 across 1000 sites so far.
“Knowing that we have a community full of people who are looking after their mates is what we love seeing the most,” says Wilson. As a result of the pandemic, she feels the topic of mental health had been bought to the forefront. “The more the topic of mental health and suicide is out there in the media, the more we can continue to normalise the conversation, the better,” she adds. [IDN-InDepthNews – 08 September 2021]
Photo credit: ABC News
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