Making Suicide Prevention a Health and Safety Priority


From Action to Awareness- Integrating Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention Into Wellness Practices


January/February 2017 Issue

By: Christian Moreno & Sally Spencer-Thomas

Source: Constructor Magazine

WHEN PEOPLE HEAR THE term “wellness,” they often think of physical wellness: sleeping eight hours a night, drinking 64 ounces of water a day and exercising for 30 minutes three times a week.  Physical wellness is important, but it is only one dimension of overall wellness. Mental, social and emotional and spiritual conditions are key aspects of a person’s overall wellness.


Mental wellness involves always sharpening skills and committing to lifelong learning. It comes from a sense of inner responsibility to always finding ways to improve – increasing knowledge, asking critical questions, trying new things and advancing skill sets. Social and emotional wellness focuses on keeping relationships and emotional well-being intact. It’s about conflict resolution, self- esteem and coping skills. Finally, spiritual wellness involves committing to something larger – participating in a faith community, volunteering to serve the common good, standing up for injustice or appreciating nature.


When implementing wellness into the construction industry, the conventional wisdom has been, “Don’t invest in it” or “It has little impact.” These perceived challenges are exacerbated by the paradigm shared by American society: mental health issues are personal and taboo. Combine the cultural realities of the construction industry with the perceived financial challenges of investing in mental health and you get a recipe for disaster. It’s time to change the mindset.


As with any preventive maintenance process, wellness needs attention over the long haul. Unfortunately, when people are in crisis mode, wellness practices are often the first to go. And, just like when you neglect to change the oil in your car, the end cost is higher. When adversity hits, people will be in a much stronger position to maintain high performance, reframe disappointment and recover from trauma if they have reservoirs of resilience and mental health resources to rely on. Arguably, the preventive approach is the most effective way to save a greater number of lives from suicide. Here are three case studies of employers who moved beyond awareness to action:



Construction + Suicide Prevention: 10 Action Steps Companies Can Take To Save Lives


January/February 2017 Issue

By: Sally Spencer-Thomas

Source: CFMA Building Profits

The construction industry is at heightened risk for mental health problems, substance abuse, and suicide.  These conditions can be devastating to employees and their families, and can be very costly and disruptive to workplaces.  For these reasons, a comprehensive and sustained strategy for mental health promotion and suicide prevention is needed. This guide is a call to action for all those ready to implement

tactics to improve the mental health of their employees and ultimately save lives.




Imagine you are walking along a river and hear a cry for help from someone drowning. You are startled but energized as you dive into the water to save him. Using all of your strength, you pull him to shore and start administering CPR. Your adrenaline

is racing as he starts to regain consciousness.


Just as you are about get back on your feet, another frantic  call comes from the river. You can’t believe it! You dive back into the river and pull out a woman who also needs life-saving care. Now a bit frazzled but still thrilled that you have saved two lives in one day, you mop the sweat from your brow.


When you turn around, however, you see more drowning people coming down the river, one after another. You shout out to all the other people around you to help. Now there are several people in the river with you – pulling drowning people out left and right.


One of the rescuers swims out to the drowning group and tries to start teaching them how to tread water. This strategy helps some, but not all.  Everyone looks at each other, completely overwhelmed, wondering when this will stop.


Finally, you stand up and start running upstream. Another rescuer glares at you and shouts, “Where are you going?  There are so many people drowning; we need everyone here to help!” To which you reply, “I’m going upstream to find out why so many people are falling into the river.”


When it comes to suicide prevention and mental health promotion, most of the focus is on pulling people out of the water. Many find themselves exhausted while resources are depleted, and everyone keeps throwing in the life preservers and performing other heroic deeds.



Construction Industry Unites to Tackle Suicide


December 27, 2106

By: Sean Forbes

Source: Bloomberg


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.



Suicide Prevention Resources are Available


December 2016 Issue

By: Bob Swanson

Source: International Union of Painters and Allied Trades


Knowing more about mental illness can help you, your loved ones, and co-workers.


As a member of the construction industry and a father who lost a son to suicide, I appreciate this opportunity to share information with members of the IUPAT.

A little background about my journey with this topic:  Our oldest son, Michael, lived with a brain disease by the name of bipolar disorder. This disease led to his death by suicide at the age of 33 on March 13, 2009.  By all physical appearances, the mental anguish that he experienced was usually not visible. As part of my healing process and in honor of my oldest son, I chose

to retire in August of 2015 so that I could devote more time and energy to reducing the shame of mental illness and, through educating others, reducing the incidence of suicide. In that regard, I have been a speaker and instructor at various venues for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Minnesota.

Most of all, I want people to know that there is help available, particularly since one in four adults will experience a mental illness each year and the most common mental illnesses are depression and anxiety disorder. I hope the following information aids in understanding how common mental health issues are and ways to help yourself, loved ones and co-workers.


A few facts regarding suicide in the United States:

  • In 2014, 42,773 Americans died by suicide. This is an increase of 24 percent since 1999.
  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death. It exceeds deaths by traffic accidents or homicides.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death among persons 15 to 24.
  • 50% of all suicides are associated with alcohol and drugs.
  • The main risk factors of suicide are depression and substance abuse.
  • It is estimated that there are up to 25 suicide attempts for each suicide death. Many attempted suicides are unreported.
  • 20% who die by suicide made a previous attempt.
  • 75% who die by suicide are male.





November 7, 2016

Source: IRMI


Orlando, FL—The Gary E. Bird Horizon Award was presented at the 36th IRMI Construction Risk Conference (CRC) to the Construction Subcommittee of the Workplace Task Force; National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. This award recognized the committee for their innovative suicide prevention program.


The committee developed and implemented the award-winning “Breaking the Silence: Suicide Prevention in the Construction Workplace” program to address mental health and suicide prevention in the construction industry. The goal of this program is to increase communication, reduce fear/stigma, engage leadership and provide a roadmap for the construction industry to prevent suicide.


The Gary E. Bird Horizon Award, sponsored by Travelers, is presented annually by IRMI to recognize a demonstrated commitment to improving construction risk management through the implementation of innovative, cost-effective, and efficient risk management techniques.


“Few of us were hired and promoted into management because of our capabilities to identify and address mental illness,” said Joe Tracy, President of Travelers Inland Marine. “This approach is very helpful at getting wide spread adoption across any company’s management ranks and most importantly helps ensure the effective implementation of the program.”


The other finalists for the award were Shawn Connick, Director of Safety for Charles Pankow Builders Ltd.; Robert J. DeSmidt, CPA, CFO/risk manager for Klinger Companies, Inc.; Tommy Erhman, Project Executive for Gilbane Federal; and Dwayne Jeffery, Senior EHS Transportation Manager for Odebrecht.


Read more about the winning submission and view the committee’s flyer.


Learn more about the Gary E. Bird Horizon Award at


AEC Professionals at high risk for suicide, but preemptive approaches can help


October 4, 2016

BY: Kevin Wilcox

Source: Civil Engineering


A CDC report reveals that employees in the architecture, engineering, and construction fields are at high risk for suicide. Assistance programs can make a difference.


October 4, 2016—When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released suicide statistics by profession earlier this year, the nexus of vocations that make up the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) professions ranked uncomfortably high on the list.


The architecture and engineering professions ranked fifth, with a rate of 32 per 100,000 workers. That rate is higher than for such emergency responders as police officers and firefighters, and nearly double the rate of many other office professions. The construction industry, which was grouped with mining by the CDC, ranked second with a rate of 53 suicides per 100,000 workers. Taken together, the AEC suicide rates are 85 per 100,000 workers, a number that matches the top category, forestry and agriculture.


Professionals who work in suicide prevention note that although there are marked differences between the construction industry and the architecture and engineering professions, there are a significant number of similarities, as well, especially when it comes to suicide prevention.


"We say that in many of the high-risk industries [it is] both the demographics of who is working there and also the nature of the work," says Sally Spencer-Thomas, Psy.D., the chief executive officer of the Carson J Spencer Foundation in Denver and the founder of, an organization dedicated to suicide prevention in the workplace. The group offers training to companies interested in making psychological safety a priority, and has published a free guide specifically for the construction industry. (The foundation is named in honor of Spencer-Thomas's brother, Carson J. Spencer, who committed suicide in 2004.)  Read more...

How a local construction company is preventing suicide


September 1, 2016

BY: Kyle Dyer, KUSA

Source: 9News Colorado


DENVER - What you do for a living can make you more at risk for suicide.


People who work in isolation or have unsteady employment like in the agriculture and forestry industries are at the greatest risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported there are 85 suicides per 100,000 workers in those fields.


Construction workers, carpenters and electricians also have a high risk for suicide (CDC: 53 suicides per 100,000).

When you consider how many construction projects are going on throughout the Denver metro area, the statistics are even more alarming.


"We've changed our culture," RK Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Jon Kinning said.  Read more...

The AEC Industry's Deadly Problem


August 31, 2016

BY: Leah Sottile

Source: Architect Magazine


Architecture and construction rank high on a recent report listing suicides by occupation. Are these professions doing enough to ensure the mental health of practitioners and students?


In July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report that set off alarm bells in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry. In the report, the CDC concluded that, among all occupational groups in the U.S., the construction and extraction industry had the second-highest rate of suicide, and architecture and engineering the fifth-highest. (The farming, fishing, and forestry occupational group topped the list.) The report, which compiled data from 17 U.S. states in 2012, tells a story that many in AEC know too well: The industry’s high-stakes, competitive nature can put undue pressure on the mental health of everyone involved, from students to practitioners.


The CDC estimates that, in the U.S., suicide costs the public and employers more than $44.6 billion annually in combined medical and work-loss expenses. But the issue extends well beyond suicide. Depression and anxiety, and even the symptoms of adult ADHD, can threaten productivity in the workplace and classroom and, most importantly, the well-being of students and employees. According to recent research from the Harvard University Medical School, nearly two in 10 Americans between the ages of 15 and 54 said they experienced symptoms of a mental health issue in the prior month. Read more...

Part 1: A hidden epidemic: Construction suicide data draws industry crisis into the spotlight


August 22, 2016

BY: Emily Reiffer

Source: Construction Dive


One afternoon in 2014, a distressed and despondent RK Mechanical employee gave away his tools to his coworkers. Looking back, managers realized he was saying goodbye. They didn't realize it soon enough.


Later that night, the worker killed himself.


"Nobody was really prepared to notice it, acknowledge it, deal with it, or ask him what was wrong," RK Director of Marketing and Communications Heather Gallien said. "It was an instance that could've been averted had staff been better prepared."


While pockets of companies and people aiming to raise awareness of suicide issues in the construction industry have emerged, a recent Center for Disease Control and Prevention report provided concrete data that industry experts have said is impossible to ignore. The study found that across all industries, construction has the second-highest suicide rate and highest total number of suicides.

Now that personal stories have combined with hard fact, more companies and construction groups are taking notice of a dark reality that has been under the shadow of stigma and lack of awareness. With that increased attention, a small group of industry leaders are starting to incorporate new policies, programs and training to ensure the health of their employees.  Read more...

Part 2: A hidden epidemic: How suicide prevention efforts can transform construction industry culture


August 22, 2016

BY: Emily Peiffer

Source: Construction Dive


Construction's high suicide rates and the importance of prevention efforts are just beginning to reach the radar of industry leaders, but the path to achieving that awareness was long and arduous amid obstacles of stigma and lack of awareness. However, with a newfound prevalence in the mainstream industry consciousness, some businesses are starting to transform their company culture and offer employee resources to drive change.


The long road to raising awareness


Despite efforts of suicide prevention activists, most of the construction industry didn't start to take notice of the issue of high suicide rates until the past year, according to Sally Spencer-Thomas, CEO and co-founder of the Carson J. Spencer Foundation. Now that the word is starting to get out, however, she no longer has to knock on every door to try to find interest. "Now they're just coming in the door," she said.


Cal Beyer, executive committee member of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention and director of risk management for paving contractor Lakeside Industries, previously worked in the construction insurance industry and said he has attempted to raise the status of mental health issues for his entire career. However, he struggled to capture the attention of industry leaders for years. "No one wanted to talk about mental health. I think people don't feel equipped," he said.  Read more...

Tackling Mental Health and Suicide Prevention in the Construction Industry


July/August 2016 Issue

BY: Cal Beyer & Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas

Source: Construction Executive


Workers in the construction and extraction industries have a 53.3 per 100,000 rate of suicide, which is second only to workers in the farming, fishing and forest occupational group (84.5 per 100,000), according to statistics released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on July 1.  Mental health and suicide prevention have been called a “management imperative,” a “missing link” in human capital risk management, and a “vital element” in a company’s safety, wellness and employee benefits program. Yet historically, the construction industry has been characterized by a stoic, tough-guy culture that keeps personal matters out of the workplace.  After generations of this old school mentality, the times are changing as progressive contractors weave mental health

and suicide prevention into a dominant “new school” culture.  Following are the stories of two construction employers that are leading the movement.



Mental health on the minds of union sheet metal workers


July 27, 2016

Source: Eye On Sheet Metal


FAIRFAX, Va. – For decades, when a member of the International Association of Sheet Metal Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, or SMART, (formerly the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association) had a personal problem, they would turn to a fellow member for help. For small issues, friends and mentors dispensed good advice just fine. However, for those members with deeper problems such as thoughts of suicide or drug and alcohol abuse and substance use disorder, friends and mentors were lost as to what advice to give.

The Sheet Metal Occupational Health Institute Trust (SMOHIT) is working with SMART’s Member Assistance Program (MAP), formally the Union Member Assistance Coordinator (UMAC) program, to train members to guide their peers in the direction of professional assistance such as therapy, rehabilitation and eventual recovery.   Read more...

Suicide is Taking its Toll in Construction- What we need to Know to Recognize its Dangers, and How to Prevent It


October - December 2016 Issue

Source: Painters & Allied Trades Journal

Working in the building and construction trades is a challenging career. There are high productivity demands on the workforce to meet deadlines, as well as working conditions that can often be an extreme danger if strict safety guidelines aren’t followed.

According to a July report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the stress from these factors, coupled with several others, are taking their toll on the construction workforce in the worst possible way. The suicide

rate for construction workers is the second highest of all industries (farming, fishing and forestry was first). The report showed that 53.3 construction workers out of every 100,000 fall to suicide. A stark difference to the overall suicide rate of 12.93 people per 100,000 in the United States.



Before we can understand why suicide is so prevalent in construction, let’s take a look at the national picture.  According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention:

  • According to the last figures available from 2014, 42,773 Americans died by suicide (an average of 117 suicides per day)
  • For every suicide, there are 25 attempts
  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States



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