Mental health workers reach out to NYC hard hats for Construction Suicide Prevention Week

Tribune Content Agency

NEW YORK — The life-threatening risks for New York’s construction workers don’t end when their shifts do.

Struggles with depression and substance abuse are common in an industry plagued by a disproportionate number of suicides, with a program to raise awareness of the daunting issues kicking off Monday during the upcoming Construction Suicide Prevention Week.

“We’re trying to change the culture,” said Brandon Loftus, director of member assistance for the International Union of Elevator Constructors. “Men in the construction industry, they don’t talk about it. The tough guy culture of ‘suck it up, buttercup’ was the mentality for a lot of years.”

Loftus, who endured his own struggles, has a message for those in the same emotional boat: ”It’s OK not to be OK.”

More than 5,500 industry workers nationwide take their own lives each year — five times more than their colleagues killed in work accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In contrast, the annual 2022 industry report by the city Department of Buildings showed just 11 on-the-job deaths.

The Building Trades Employers Association is behind the new program, with recently-arrived CEO Elizabeth Crowley making mental health a priority.

“I think especially when it comes to suicide, a silent killer, people don’t like to discuss it,” said Crowley. “This industry is known for grit and determination, but acknowledging mental health and wellness, addressing the issue, has made us even stronger.”

Construction workers face danger on a daily basis, from electrocution to accidents with equipment to falls from high elevations. But their mental well-being, often self-diagnosed and difficult to share, has long gone untreated.

Industry veteran Pat Di Filippo, executive vice president with Turner Construction, said the warning signs of mental health issues are not always easy to diagnose.

“That’s the hardest one to notice,” said Di Filippo, whose father worked in the business. “A worker might (need to) wear a harness, and that’s easy to mandate. But how do you monitor somebody who comes through your gate, a big burly worker?

“You can be emotional or distraught. Or just suffering anxiety. So how do you see these signs? It starts with a conversation.”

Turner Construction now hangs bilingual suicide prevention posters in prominent locations at their 1,500 project sites, hosts a suicide awareness webinar for employees and brought in a doctor to speak at a company-wide “town hall” meeting.

Nearly 250,000 construction workers from 48 states and U.S. territories registered last year to participate in a national mental health program, launched by a group of volunteers in 2020 as industry attention continues to grow.

Doug Parker, the federal assistant secretary for occupational safety and health, recently cited “the unique causes of stress” across the industry, from long hours to the risk of serious injuries.

“Left unchecked, these stressors can affect mental health severely and lead to anxiety, depression, substance abuse and — in some cases — suicide,” he said.

The organizers hope to get in front of the issue by raising awareness and then providing assistance to those in need.

Gov. Kathy Hochul appeared at a June event announcing the BTEA’s increased focus on mental health, backing the endeavor before a crowd of contractors and union employees.

“I am so grateful that you’re enlightened enough to bring up this topic,” she said. “For so long, people have had to deal with the stresses of life, but there was a stigma associated to asking for help.”

BTEA Executive Vice President Patrick Wehle said the suicide prevention event, running this Monday through Friday, was a step in the right direction — but just the first one.

“We know we have to do more,” he said. “We need to get people to talk (and) push, push, push in working together to reduce the stigma. To make people more comfortable in having the conversation.”