Construction union UCATT is so concerned about the high number of suicides that it is seeking urgent action to address the crisis. With one construction worker taking his or her life every two days, the industry needs to be made aware of the scale of the problem and take action now to prevent any more unnecessary deaths.
Bryan Rye, a UCATT regional secretary, is on a mission to uncover the truth about suicide and the construction industry. In August 2002, Rye was alerted to the unusually high incidence of suicides after figures – compiled over the period 1997-2001, by East Kent Health Authority – revealed that 36 out of 233 suicides in the region, or 16% of all suicides, were committed by men working in the construction industry. "When I first saw the figures I found them absolutely shocking; it is disgusting that workers in our industry have to endure levels of stress that are so bad they have to end their lives. The industry needs to recognise the problem."
Rye was so concerned by this revelation that he wrote to every health authority in the country in an attempt to discover if the pattern is repeated nationally. From the limited feedback so far it would appear that the statistics for East Kent are not an isolated case. Rye received alarming statistics from the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Health Authority that have revealed that 10% of all suicides in the region between 1998-2001 were by construction workers.
This 10% figure is in line with records provided by construction pension and insurance provider B&CE. The not-for-profit company's figures on suicide make grim reading: of the 448 death-benefit claims lodged with the firm for the 12 months ending 31 March 2002, 46 deaths were recorded as suicides. As a consequence, the firm has pledged its support for any initiative that will provide assistance to those workers in the industry desperately in need of help.
Figures compiled by the National Office of Statistics and analysed by support group and charity the Samaritans highlight the crisis. The group has assembled suicide statistics for a range of different occupations over a five-year period: of all the industry sectors listed, the number of suicides in construction is higher than that of any other sector. One reason for this is that more people work in construction. But even when the number of suicides is calculated as a percentage of the total workforce, construction has a higher incidence than most other professions.
The male domination of construction could be a major factor, as suicides by men make up 75% of all suicides in the UK. There is also a tradition of men refusing to talk about problems or express their feelings, which exists both on site and in British society. It has also been noted by mental health charity Mind that men in unskilled employment are twice as likely to kill themselves compared with men in skilled employment.
However, suicide is not a problem unique to UK construction workers. In Australia, a study has shown that construction workers in the state of Queensland are taking their own lives at double the rate of the average employee. At the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union's (CFMEU) biennial conference, delegates were told that more than 40% of all death-related claims to the building industry's pension provider were suicides.
The shocking findings have resulted in the union funding a research project on suicide, along with the Queensland state government. The research, which will be carried out by Brisbane's Griffith University, will attempt to establish a database that quantifies suicide rates for people employed in the construction industry. It will also gather information on industry-specific contributory factors to suicides and will offer recommendations for preventative actions. The research will be used to establish whether the high incidence of suicides reported for Queensland is replicated across the rest of Australia.
But even before the results of this study are published, the CFMEU has taken action and established a support group for young building and construction industry apprentices and trainees called the Oz Help Foundation. The group aims to assist apprentices in developing positive methods of coping with issues in the workplace.
In the UK, the feedback Rye has so far received has convinced him of the desperate need for urgent action. In conjunction with the East Kent Health Authority, he has produced a guidance leaflet for workers warning them to look out for the danger signs that indicate they could be a suicide risk and informing them of the routes available to seek help and support (see UCATT Advice, page 43). Rye has also contacted employers' federations and contractors to make them aware of the potential risk of a suicide in their workforce, and urging them to be more proactive in preventing such incidents occurring.
Identifying the causes and risks
After it was notified of the crisis by Rye, the Federation of Master Builders contacted its members and alerted them to the existence of advice bodies such as the Samaritans and the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), a helpline providing advice, guidance, referrals and counselling to 15 to 24-year-old men.
Figures compiled by East Kent Health Authority revealed that 36 out of 233 suicides in the region, or 16% of all suicides, were committed by men working in the construction industry
Employers' representatives have also been made aware of the crisis. Construction Confederation health and safety director Andy Sneddon says that he is aware of the study by UCATT. However, Sneddon says that at the moment the Construction Confederation is working with the HSE to focus its attention on the biggest cause of death in construction currently – falls from height.
But UCATT is seeking urgent action. Having identified the crisis of a tragically high incidence of suicide among construction workers, UCATT is desperate to find an immediate solution. "UCATT believes that identifying the problem is only the beginning," says Rye. The task now is to identify the cause. "Identifying the risks in the work place, or those arising from work pressures, is going to be the major exercise," Rye declares.
The Construction Confederation's Sneddon says that a reason for the high rate of suicides could be the itinerant lifestyle led by many construction workers, away from home and in poor conditions: "I suspect that [the suicide rate] is due, in part at least, to the industry having a peripatetic workforce," he says.
One result of the itinerant nature of many senior, high-pressure construction positions such as project managers is that employees often find themselves alone, away from family and friends for weeks on end. The situation is even more acute when managers work abroad. Mel Pritchard, a production leader for Mace on BAA's Heathrow Terminal 1 project, has lived and worked abroad for various employers. "If you're on your own, it can be a miserable existence," he admits.
Loneliness is a problem made worse by many companies placing married employees on single-person status, which can stretch for years in some cases, "until they've proven that they are steady workers", says Pritchard. He says that having his wife with him on a project in Indonesia, he made sure he left the office early. Otherwise, he says, "you tend to go home, change and then come back into work". It is a routine that many people find difficult to handle. "A lot of guys cannot do it. Normally, after three months, you can tell if a guy is going to crack," Pritchard says. "If you're working in the Middle East, for example, you do a six-day week. At the start of the job you have a life, but as you get well into the job you do more hours – that's when all the problems occur – people lose their tempers."
Stress is one factor that can lead to depression and maybe even suicide. Psychotherapist Patricia Justice explains that communication is key to reducing stress. "Blokes in the construction industry seem to have a 'just get on with it' attitude. This can be good if you are dealing with things, but if you aren't, it can lead to great levels of stress."
Pritchard says he has seen people crack under stress because they are not communicating. "I worked in Algeria with a guy who had originally served his time in the army, so he was used to working away from home. Anyway, he didn't come into the office for a few days. I became concerned after a while and went to look for him. I found him sitting in his room with the curtains drawn, drinking. He was having a nervous breakdown. He'd got a problem on his mind from work and he thought he had problems with his wife back home. He had just been sitting there mulling things over and over – and his problems were getting worse and worse in his head." Pritchard says that having found the guy, the task was to get him to talk about his problems. "He needed a relief valve. You have to force the guy to talk about things to share his problems."
Pritchard says that what happened in Algeria is not an isolated incident. "I've seen the same warning signs in people on different projects," he explains. "People go totally introverted. They look away from you, they don't communicate and in effect, they put themselves in isolation."
Dealing with the industry crisis
The pressures of working away from home are not confined to those working abroad. Sharon Coupland Jones, personnel director at Shepherd Construction, says that working away from home, even in the UK, tends to mean working longer hours. Workers also tend to drink more, they don't exercise and they eat badly. "It can affect their health and wellbeing," she says.
Poor industrial relations could be another contributing factor in the industry's high suicide rate. UCATT's Rye asks: "Are the suicide hotspots of January, Easter and the summertime anything to do with the fact that 70-80% of construction workers have never received holiday pay, resulting in no earnings over Christmas, no money after Christmas and little money coming in after poor winter weather?" Rye adds that if you throw in poor job security, the pressures soon begin to mount on workers. The Construction Confederation's Sneddon agrees: "It all comes back to treating people properly," he says.
However, pressure is not confined to employees working for large construction operations on high-pressure mega-projects. The diverse nature of construction means that many small contractors are under immense pressure trying to run a small business and manage its finances. In this respect many small contractors are like farmers, who the government has recognised as a special case.
"The pressures on bosses of small family businesses are horrendous because there is so much at stake," explains Charles McKeown, heads of the UK construction division of the Federation of Small Businesses. "It is at the smaller end of the market that the pressure is: there are financial pressures created by retentions – I don't know of any small builders that don't run an overdraft."
Bryan Rye hopes that the dozens of letters he has sent to the health authorities will prompt them to help create greater industry awareness to the problem of stress and the pressures confronting workers in the construction industry.
He says that UCATT will be alerting the industry and trying to help it address high levels of stress in all future safety campaigns, and that the topic is to be included in prospective UCATT literature.
An industry taleWendy Buckland, 32, was widowed two years ago after her construction-worker husband Robert committed suicide, leaving her with three children under the age of eight. Here, she tells Building her tragic story.
“I had been married to Robert for eight years before he decided to take his own life. Three years previous to Robert’s death, we had moved from Wembley to Nottinghamshire in an attempt to bring our children up in a better environment, away from the stresses and smog of London.
Robert used to travel to London every Sunday evening and stay with a friend during the week and then come back home on a Friday night to spend the weekend with the family and me. We had a very big mortgage to pay, as we wanted to buy a bigger house for the children, with a garden, and couldn’t afford it in the London housing market, although Robert was keen to remain working in London as an agency labourer.
However, Robert soon became increasingly unhappy with the long weekly commute and the time he spent away from us. The problem was made worse in that he wasn’t very happy with a couple of the sites he was working on and the men on them. I don’t think there was a particular problem with the sites in general. But when you are travelling a long way and you’re tired, everything seems to be a lot worse, especially in the winter time, when it is cold and you are working outside for long periods.
Robert used to tell me how unhappy he was, but I never really knew how bad it was. In hindsight, I have realised that he used to really dread his working day.
As an agency labourer he also felt that he didn’t have much stability in his job. He would have a different foreman at any one time, and they used to bark out their orders at him just to get their pound of flesh for the day’s work. It used to make Robert very depressed and, in the months leading up to his death, he was definitely looking for a way out of working on building sites.
I can’t say it was just being a builder that caused Robert to commit suicide, and I don’t want to get into how and why he actually did it, as he did also have some more personal problems that I don’t want to go into. But I think his line of work and the culture of the industry has definitely contributed to the problem. And I think there definitely needs to be some kind of advice or guidance counselling that companies could provide to help workers who are feeling down or just need some help, because construction sites can be very bleak places on a cold December’s morning.”
UCATT advice – what you can do to helpThe UCATT guidance says that if you know someone who is suffering from stress, you could help them by doing the following:
- Try to get the person to relax, unwind, go out with you, but avoid drinking excessively.
- Try and get them to do some exercise, play football or running.
- Encourage the person to talk about what causes them stress, and think together about how they could handle things differently.
- Try to get them to think about what they’ve achieved each day rather than all the things they need to do.
- Encourage them to cut down on their drinking and smoking.
- Encourage them to take a long holiday, or even regular short breaks, to get away from it all.