Managing Mental Health: Construction Occupations Still Have the Highest Suicide Rate in America

It’s easy to find yourself in an unexpected conversation at a Caterpillar press event or one of its big booths at a tradeshow like CONEXPO-CON/AGG. The discussion will start with track loaders and grade control technologies and then veer into subjects like monitoring sleep deprivation for equipment operators, adapting machine technologies for space exploration with NASA or the China Basketball Association, which Cat sponsored last year. Even during the pandemic, Cat is still pushing conversations that broaden the perspective of off-highway, diesel-powered earthmoving equipment.

In June, National Safety Month, Cat announced a new initiative and webinar series called Beyond Safety Basics, which is focused on better understanding the people who work with machines. Subjects range from communication skills on the jobsite (reinforcing safe behaviors with positive recognition) to the psychology of safety (why workers often do the things they do). In late summer, Cat gathered the press together to watch Mental Health on the Jobsite, a webinar focused on suicide prevention (embedded below), with a Q&A afterward with the presenters. It was poignant.

“My dad was a contractor,” explained Michelle Walker, chairwoman of the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention, in the webinar. “We grew up in an oil town, which has a very similar culture to construction. I saw firsthand the culture of construction, the very stoic, get-it-done-at-all-costs mentality that surrounds the industry. It’s one of the things that draws people to it. It’s definitely a positive aspect of the industry, however, those same positive characteristics of being self-sufficient and handling everything on your own and not asking for help can also create the risk factors around mental health, increasing the risk of suicide.”

Did you know that construction occupations have the highest suicide rate in America? Construction workers and equipment professionals who are struggling with depression and anxiety are far more likely to be involved in incidents that harm themselves or others because of their work environment. Walker recounts a story:

“A subcontractor driver was delivering materials to a job. It was his last day of a long shift, and he had received a call about the death of a parent. The decision was made that he would stay on and continue to work and finish out the last day of his shift. All of this resulted in him not being able to sleep during the night because of the message of what had happened and that combination of the lack of sleep and the trauma of the loss resulted in the next day a distraction, going through a stop sign and hitting a van with a family in it.”

The webinar goes on to talk about the importance of communication, creating open-door work environments, understanding the warning signs of mental stress and ways to help manage the increased pressure of working during a pandemic. I highly suggest a visit to Caterpillar’s Beyond Safety Basics website (cat.com/safetyleadership) to get involved in these issues. Because we’re all struggling in some fashion these days, and these free, easy-to-access resources are growing in importance. Kudos to Cat for continuing to take the conversation well beyond the basics of construction equipment.

Keith Gribbins is publisher of Compact Equipment. E-mail him at kgribbins@benjaminmedia.com.

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