Candid Safety Promotes Mental Health and Prevents Suicide
Cal Beyer is the vice president of workforce risk & mental wellbeing for CSDZ, a construction risk management firm. Previously, Beyer served as director of risk management for Lakeside Industries Inc., with locations in Washington and Oregon. Beyer is a recognized leader on mental health and suicide prevention issues and works to increase construction industry awareness, advocacy and action on mental health and suicide prevention.
John Hickey is the executive director of the Asphalt Pavement Association of Oregon (APAO). During Hickey’s APAO tenure, the association has expanded its core principles to include roadway workzone safety, which led to working with Beyer and others. Recently, Beyer and Hickey discussed APAO’s evolution, starting with Hickey explaining the state association’s structure.
“APAO is dedicated to improving Oregon’s asphalt pavement industry. We provide training for the Oregon asphalt pavement technician certification program, work with agency partners to develop fair and consistent asphalt specifications, and generally try to improve asphalt pavement quality in Oregon. Our workzone safety efforts often focus on working with the Oregon Department of Transportation and other owners on how and when to perform road and highway paving to provide a safe working environment.
“APAO has three full-time employees and over 120 member companies who participate in trainings and APAO events. Member companies vary from single-location family-owned businesses to multi-state corporations. The number of employees varies in any member company from a handful to thousands, with similar variation in company cultures.
“The traits that are consistent throughout the Oregon asphalt pavement industry are a commitment to continuous quality improvement and safety. Member companies understand that everyone benefits when an industry that builds and maintains transportation infrastructure prioritizes quality, customer satisfaction, and safety over the interests of any single member in a specific situation.”
CAL BEYER: I remember when APAO first started thinking about mental health and suicide prevention. Would you talk about your perspective on how APAO got started on the topics?
JOHN HICKEY: APAO’s mental health and wellness efforts started soon after we elevated the importance of worker safety to a core principle. APAO historically focused on asphalt pavement mixtures, training, and providing technical resources to engineers and contractors. About six years ago we noticed that increased traffic on our roads required performing more paving at night. Although traffic volume is less at night, people drive faster and there are more instances of impaired driving. Distracted driving was also increasing and causing accidents at an alarming rate. The Oregon paving industry grew frustrated at increasing worker injuries and deaths. As a result, APAO leadership expanded our focus to including roadway workzone safety.
Many other construction organizations have done a great job in elevating the importance of safety and facilitating culture change. Instead of replicating their efforts, we looked for gaps and areas where our expertise could make a difference. In taking a step back and trying to assess important aspects of roadway workzone safety, we were connected with you, which was when you were in charge of safety for Lakeside Industries. You introduced us to the Portland Chapter of the Construction Financial Management Association’s annual suicide prevention summits, which bring together local and national mental health leaders and construction company employees to raise awareness and strategize steps to address suicide. The summits connected us with local leaders such as Judy Cushing and Dwight Holton of Lines for Life, and Chris Bouneff of the Oregon chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health. Through the suicide prevention summits and the local leaders we discovered statistics and real life stories surrounding mental health and suicide that shocked us.
Our experience highlights a major roadblock in addressing mental health issues. Mental illness can be invisible because warning signs are not always outwardly evident and the stigma and tough-guy construction industry culture cause people to keep issues secret until it is too late. It is also easier to focus on other things that affect safety—like adding more signs or message boards to workzones. But, the statistics don’t lie, and we realized the issue’s seriousness.
We did not develop a defined strategy or a detailed plan. Our goal was to start the conversation among and within member companies. We wrote articles in our newsletter and invited speakers to our events. Before, our events focused almost exclusively on the technical aspects of asphalt pavement. After, no event was too technical to discuss mental health and suicide prevention. In fact, the most interesting and impactful discussions arose from traditionally technical events.
The new topics and speakers at our events exposed the Oregon paving industry to a new way of thinking. We distributed sample toolbox talks and resource flyers to members and posted information on our website. There is more than one example where a “tough” superintendent who previously showed no weakness opened up about struggles to crew members and encouraged others to be open.
CAL BEYER: How do you measure performance?
JOHN HICKEY: Our mental health and suicide prevention efforts are not measured by or dependent on any specific statistic. Leaders in member companies have given us overwhelmingly positive feedback—but, more importantly, the conversations among the people attending our events and trainings have not waned and we consistently hear anecdotal stories about improvements in industry culture.
As with many efforts that focus on an entire industry, it’s hard to measure success in the short term. Our vision is long term. We hope our continuing commitment will create a perpetual culture of acceptance, treatment and prevention.
CAL BEYER: Do you have any lessons learned and advice for companies or other organizations?
JOHN HICKEY: We learned that although the issues are challenging and pervasive, the industry is ready to address them. Every member company—from the workers on the grade to the owners—has embraced our efforts. That is in an industry where universal support for anything is rare. Our next steps include strategizing how to consistently provide fresh ideas to continue the conversations and ensure that all workers know of and are comfortable using available resources. We have come a long way, but the battle is nowhere near over.
Other organizations should just act—there is no need for a plan, a perfect strategy, or company-branded resources. Resources exist, and if you are reading this, you already have them at your fingertips. Start with the safety professionals in your organization or within your membership. They will know where to find local resources. Reach out to the closest chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the leaders of any suicide prevention hotlines and ask how you can help them tell their story to your company or group.
Raising the issues must be a priority. Productive conversations will happen once the issues are raised and organizations show that they are truly supportive of workers with mental illness or who are living with family members with mental illness. Those conversations will open eyes and cause people to think about mental health differently, which is progress.