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Commentary: Mental health disorders are a workplace danger often overlooked


Work-related stress can severely harm someone’s mental health and, without proper support, lead some to turn to substance abuse and even suicide.

September is National Suicide Prevention Month which reminds us that the construction industry has one of the nation’s highest occupational suicide rates. In fact, there are 53 suicides per 100,000 workers, about four times the number among all Americans. As part of the September observation, the construction industry dedicates a week each year to raise awareness about the kinds of stressors industry workers face, how some may consider or attempt suicide and what we can do to help these people.

To address the issue, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) works with a task force of construction industry partners, unions and educators to inform industry employers and workers about the causes leading to mental health conditions and the thoughts and acts of suicide.

In concert with Construction Suicide Prevention Week, the task force is calling on industry employers, trade groups and other stakeholders to join OSHA’s Suicide Prevention Safety Stand-Down, Sept. 4 through 8. The event asks employers to pause work for a moment to share information and resources and urge employees to seek mental health care if needed.

In 2022, approximately 250,000 workers in 47 states registered to participate in Construction Suicide Prevention Week managed by OSHA, The Builders Association, Associated General Contractors, leading construction companies and labor unions. That same year, I learned firsthand how important efforts like these are.

At a related event, I shared a story about a Kansas City contractor whose supervisors received a call from a worker standing on the side of a highway, ready to end his life. Recognizing the danger, the worker’s supervisor alerted the Suicide Prevention Lifeline and called 911 before going to find the troubled employee and keep him talking to the suicide lifeline. When I finished sharing this example, a man in the audience came and told me he was the employee whose life was saved. He also said he survived because he had attended his employer’s suicide awareness stand-down event in 2020, which gave him the hope and courage to call his supervisor for help without concern for feeling stigmatized.  

With real-life examples like these as evidence, OSHA urges employers, industry associations, labor organizations and workers to use all available resources (www.osha.gov/preventingsuicides) to understand the problem and the warning signs of depression and make employees aware of the 24-hour national 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Learn more about the lifeline at www.samhsa.gov/find-help/988.

To make sure people who seek help to address their mental health, the department has been aggressively working — at the direction of the Biden-Harris administration — to make sure people seeking mental health and substance use disorder care have the same access they have for treatment for medical and surgical conditions. In July, the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services proposed rules to further protect workers’ rights to mental health treatment. 

As we remember the importance of workers this Labor Day, let’s also give them the tools to work safely each day and protect them from both physical and mental risks. By taking preventive steps, we can help save lives.

Karena Lorek is the OSHA Area Director in Kansas City and a founding member of the Suicide in Construction Taskforce.