Asphalt Industry Prepares to Stem the Tide of Construction Industry Suicide
BY Vince Hafeli and Sandy Lender
In society, you may hear someone caution you that talking about suicide will put the idea of self-harm into someone’s head. This myth must be dispelled, and we must talk openly, clearly, and succinctly about the epidemic of suicide in the construction industry if we are to protect our colleagues from despair and bring about a mental health wellness culture.
We could fill this article with alarming statistics about opioid dependence brought about by musculoskeletal strains and injuries on job sites and the horrifying “success rate” of life-ending methods by men versus women. Or we could point you to websites like The Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) and Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP) where those statistics will be accompanied by materials your safety and human resources directors can use in concert with insurance companies to put an Employee Assistance Program together immediately.1
An Employee Assistance Program should identify—among other things—your policy for helping, without judgment, a worker who comes forward seeking help with a substance-abuse problem. As company executives, we are responsible for discussing mental health and suicide within our industry and encouraging our employees to openly and honestly discuss the topic without fear of repercussions. These discussions are important to “Gen Z,” which also ties into workforce development, recruitment, and retention within our industry.
Keep in mind, a dependence on opioids, which research shows can develop after a mere three days of use, is not the only stressor leading to mental health unwellness in the construction industry.2 Mental health wellness is a complex issue—dependent on individual experiences—that people aren’t always ready to talk about. The team at Ajax Paving Industries of Florida discovered this truth firsthand after a discussion with department heads in August 2021.
The meeting in August took place with the company president; human resources; the vice president of construction and four area construction managers; the general manager of plants and materials and two regional plant managers; the director of safety; the quality control manager; the fleet manager; the IT manager; and the trucking manager. These are leaders in the company who employees look up to. When Hafeli shared his personal story—unplanned—from 2007 with these managers, no one knew how to respond.
Thus no one responded.
Web Extra: Watch the webinar “Shining Light on Mental Health & Suicide Prevention” presented to the Women of Asphalt by Cal Beyer, vice president of Holmes Murphy & Associates, and Vince Hafeli, March 2, 2022. It’s hosted at the WofA website on the Conversations to Lead and Inspire page.
This further supported what the literature research revealed—this is a complicated topic and people avoid discussing the issue. But Ajax leadership decided to make a mental health wellness culture change.
They hosted a Safety Day Jan. 3, 2022, in which over 430 employees participated. At the presentation where leadership announced Jan. 3 as Day 1 of Ajax beginning to discuss mental health and suicide, Hafeli made a statement when talking about suicide that he had been there. While he gave no details that day, this powerful statement resonated across the company.
Later that day, he received an email from an employee thanking him for opening the door. That employee worked with a superintendent who had seemed “off” for quite some time; however, he didn’t know how to approach the topic. After leaving the safety day meeting, the two had an hour-long conversation revealing issues that the worker went to seek counseling for.
Also after that safety day meeting, over 20 employees posted on the company’s Facebook page thanking management for discussing mental health, saying it was long overdue, calling it a great discussion on mental health.
The journey continues at Ajax Paving. The company took the pledge with CIASP.3 The safety director has scheduled talks on mental health and suicide prevention for each quarter of 2022. The Safety Stand Downs during the week of March 21 included discussions on this topic. And Hafeli, as the company president, has been discussing the topic when visiting employees in the field.
In the construction industry today, we will lose 3 workers to work-related fatalities. We will lose 15 to suicide.
It’s time for the industry at large to make that discussion widespread. Talking about mental health wellness and suicide prevention is key to helping a colleague rise out of despair. Each member of the industry has the ability to protect and safeguard his or her struggling co-worker. And each member of the industry who has struggled and overcome has a story of success and continuing mental health work to share. AsphaltPro Magazine invites you to share your struggle and your rise, for the benefit of others who may be where you once were. We’re offering space in our pages to share, with compassion and discretion, information that could help save a life. It’s time to erase the stigma of mental health struggles and help one another.
2During a webinar hosted by CIDCI March 11, 2022, CPWR’s deputy director, Rick Rinehart presented data on opioid prescription frequency and the ease of substance addiction. More statistics can be found at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website https://www.samhsa.gov/.
3Take the pledge to stand up for suicide prevention here: https://preventconstructionsuicide.com/STAND_UP_for_Suicide_Prevention
Vince Hafeli is the president of Ajax Paving Industries of Florida, North Venice, Florida. To reach him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To share your story with the industry, reach out in confidence to email@example.com.