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Construction suicides keep rising

2 Dec 22 Numerous industry initiatives and awareness campaigns appear to have failed to prevent growing numbers of construction workers from killing themselves.

Latest suicide statistics for England and Wales, published by the Office for National Statistics, show that 507 people working in the construction industry took their own lives in 2021. This is an increase from 483 in 2020.

Of the 507 construction suicides last year, 503 were male.

The construction suicide toll in 2022 was 25 more than the previous five year average of 482.

The latest number equates to 34 per 100,000 in employment – up from 26 per 100,000 seven years ago.

It used to be said that suicides within construction are three times that of the national industry average. In fact, the latest data indicate that workers in construction are now nearly four times more likely to take their own lives compared to other sectors.

Since the 2017 Stevenson-Farmer review of mental health in the workplace report in 2017, the Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity has been working with Professor Billy Hare at Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) to analyse construction suicide statistics in the hope of learning how and where best to focus preventative measures.

The professor reports that management and professional occupations have had the lowest rates of death by suicide since 2015, and have been on a downward trajectory. However, in 2021 the rate for this occupational group doubled from 4.9 to 11.2 deaths per 100,000. This constitutes a rise of 5.1 (84%) on the previous rolling five year average and is the highest it's been since recording the data from 2015. The rate for skilled workers increased 21% on the previous five year average, whilst 'plant and process' and 'unskilled' workers rose 18% and 16% respectively, despite the rate for each of these occupations falling slightly from the previous year.

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Prof Hare said “Whilst it is unwise to react to a single year’s figures, the long-term rate of suicides is regrettably on an upward trajectory for those working in the construction industry, despite all the good work being done in recent years. This means we need to dig deeper to find and address the true root causes, and take collective action sooner rather than later.” 

Bill Hill, chief executive of the Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity, said: “Over 87% of our construction workforce are male and over 50% of the sector is made up of self-employed, agency staff or zero-hour contract workers. Financial insecurity is a major factor for poor wellbeing in our workforce and the pandemic added greater anxiety and emotional burden. The industry and charities like ours have made huge strides in recognising and delivering programmes to improve wellbeing but the results from 2021 simply galvanise our resolve to do more. Our messages of support are not reaching the boots on the ground. We all have a moral responsibility and an economic imperative to work together to improve the wellbeing and welfare or our workers.”

The Construction Leadership Council (CLC) has asked Lighthouse and the Mates In Mind charity to co-chair a project to improve wellbeing and welfare within construction, to break down barriers and increase awareness of support services.

This initiative, called Make It Visible, will look to bring together various industry organisations to support action to reduce suicides in the industry.

Sarah Meek, managing director of Mates in Mind, said “These latest statistics demonstrate that we need to do more as an industry to prevent people reaching the point of crisis, by addressing the causes that negatively impact on one’s mental health and thereby reduce the need for safety nets.  There is much that we can do around prevention and employers should be encouraged to view their responsibility around this across their total workforce including their supply chain who, from our research earlier this year, have shown to be working with severe levels of anxiety.  With positive moves already beginning which sees mental health starting to feature in frameworks, we must continue building on this and encourage conversations around how contracts are both procured and awarded to address some of the factors that can have such a detrimental effect.”

Professor Hare also expressed frustration that suicide statistics are not published in Scotland. "I would now urge the Scottish government to publish comparable Scottish data and stop using our smaller population as an excuse for inaction," he said. "The Welsh government publishes this data and I think it is in the public interest that we in Scotland see, at the very least, the Scottish construction occupational data for the same period."

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