Preventing construction industry suicides

By Stephen Young | 22 January 2024

A key essential of the public sector’s place-making agenda is focused on physical regeneration. Each year, up and down the land, endless effort is invested in new construction projects – the shiny buildings which brighten up local skylines and create jobs and economic opportunity for all.

It is difficult among the fanfare of a successful regeneration project to note that as well as the obvious local celebration, sitting behind an alarming number of these projects is a story of unimaginable personal suffering and grief which goes largely unnoticed.

Having worked in and around redevelopment and construction in the public sector for many years, I thought I knew most things about the industry. However, following a chance invitation to a Downtown in Business round table with ex-England international Trevor Steven and industry leaders, I learned a sad and haunting truth plaguing the sector and the mainly young men who work within it.

Last year, according to the Health and Safety Executive, 45 building workers died because of work-based accidents. Every construction worker or visitor is required to wear PPE and undergo health and safety briefings. As anyone who has ever visited a construction site will know, you are greeted with notices and instructions on how to avoid accidents. It forms an intrinsic part of the sector’s thinking as we try to reduce the number of work-based accident deaths to zero.

What goes largely unreported and unnoticed is that the number of work-based accidents is dwarfed each year by the number of construction workers who commit suicide.

There were 507 cases in 2022 – almost 10 a week. Yet in none of the construction projects I have ever been involved with have we ever asked the companies bidding to prepare a mental health statement as to how they plan to support the mental wellbeing of the people working on site.

The reasons why so many men – and it is overwhelmingly men – working on construction sites feel they have no other option but to end their lives is part of a much bigger and more complex social challenge.

But with the majority of construction projects funded by the public sector and local government procuring by far the most, we are in a unique position to begin to deal with this challenge.

Tackling mental health is not a new challenge for the sector. It forms part of the statutory duties we hold to support residents experiencing mental health problems. Over the years this has resulted in some innovative projects focused on providing help and support to people who are struggling. I am sure this work will have saved countless lives and would not want to detract from it in any way.

However, it is questionable if these projects have been as successful among the construction industry when the people in question are in the main working away from home and their local support networks – and working in a male-dominated environment, where opening up about your feelings is not the norm – and unlikely to engage with a local council mental health project.

As a sector we could and should do more. One quick way to make progress on this issue would be to have a scored component on all construction tenders concerning mental health. This would require all tenders to specify what steps they would take to promote positive mental health among their workforce. This could be further backed up with a range of performance activity measures about mental health among the workforce to demonstrate a commitment to the issue after the award of a tender. By linking this requirement to the pre-contract award and post-contract performance this will ensure this issue gets the focus it clearly deserves.

Such an approach would not take an extensive amount of additional work or cost and would promote a more positive approach to mental health. This may not be the whole solution, but it is a start. Anything is better than the alternative of 10 more people ending their lives each and every week when we, as a sector, could be doing so much more.

Stephen Young is chief executive of Halton BC

X – @StephenYoung74

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Local economies Regeneration Procurement Mental Health