Originally published August 1, 2022 in OH&S Occupational Health & Safety.
By Paul Goren | Monday, August 1, 2022
The meaning of safety in construction has started to evolve.
When we think of safety on a construction site, we often think about hazards and safety policies to prevent accidents. But in the last couple of years, the meaning of safety in construction has started to evolve. The most innovative site managers are integrating employee mental and physical health programs into their safety strategies.
In 2018 alone, there were 1,008 construction fatalities but more than 5,200 suicides by construction workers. This suicide rate equates to 45.3 deaths per 100,000, or nearly twice the average male suicide rate of 27.4 per 100,000. Mental health is as serious (if not more serious) on the job site as physical health. Both are crucial factors in an employee’s ability to perform their job safely, effectively and efficiently.
When employees are experiencing physical or mental health challenges, the effect on their job performance and productivity can be just as dangerous as common construction site hazards. The concept of safety in construction is now expanding from a focus-on liability to a focus-on workforce health and wellness.
Shifting from Reactionary to Preventive Care
While physical health has long been a top priority for construction leaders, it’s often addressed through reactionary care following an incident. Today, this is no longer the case. Recently, a switch is being flipped with greater investment being placed in injury prevention through proactive care. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the most common non-fatal workplace injuries resulting in days away from work in 2020 were strains, sprains and tears–all injuries that can be prevented if addressed early.
Still, there is a barrier to that early care in construction with many workers reluctant to report pain and brushing it off as insignificant when they should be going to a care provider for evaluation. The reluctance surrounding prevention is an ongoing and unfortunate reality in the space. To combat that, more construction leaders are investing in modern onsite medical teams dedicated to preventive care to help catch these injuries before they potentially get worse and more costly. Today’s onsite clinicians can check in with workers about what’s hurting them through non-descriptive assessments. Some construction sites are even providing programs including micro-sessions, wellness carts, hydration stations and competitive challenges.
Further, onsite medical teams can help workers physically prepare for each project phase and task through tailored stretches and exercises. Because of the highly skilled and physical nature of construction, workers actually need the same level of physical and mental preparation as professional athletes. In fact, the tasks completed by construction workers require just as much, if not more, physical strain as those of professional sports players. To limit on-the-job injuries and reduce time away from work, construction leaders are putting more emphasis on preventive care. And not just when it comes to physical health either.
Addressing and Reducing the Mental Health Stigma
Mental health is highly stigmatized in the construction industry. Despite national and global increased focus on mental health and wellness, the construction industry has been slower to adapt. In a 2021 poll conducted by the American Psychiatry Association (APA), only 18 percent of construction workers agreed that they would openly discuss mental health with co-workers and only 17 percent said they would discuss mental health with their supervisors. Seventy-eight percent said that one of the top reasons was shame and stigma.
While the stigma persists today, more and more construction leaders are addressing it in their workforces by increasing access to mental health and behavioral health services. In that same APA survey, 77 percent of construction leadership indicated that addressing mental health was prioritized by their business. Mental health in construction is moving away from just a “check the box” approach and is becoming embedded in the worksite and company culture.
To get there requires starting from a base level—reducing the stigma surrounding mental health worksite. Creating a healthy dialogue around mental health with workers is key and can be done by routinely having mind, body and safety talks. Some may consider bringing engaging guest speakers onsite and hosting wellness events where an honest, free-flowing dialogue is encouraged. Allowing workers to seek help on their own terms through access to more resources like online mental health providers is another way construction leaders can break the stigma and make it easier for employees to get the care they need.
Improving Working Environments for Employee Wellbeing
In today’s construction landscape, the focus put on worksites has expanded beyond environmental safety into environmental wellness. According to the National Institutes of Health, environmental wellness is about creating clean, safe and healthy surroundings. Construction leaders are beginning to tap into new, innovative services that go beyond providing a clean worksite.
Services like stretching stations to help prevent on-the-job injuries and water stations at every level of the job site to promote hydration are popping up at more and more construction sites. To further tap into environmental wellness, construction leaders should consider introducing lifestyle services like onsite haircuts, food trucks and smoothie stations. Simple add-ons like these show workers they are valued and their employer is willing to go above and beyond to ensure they’re taken care of, leading to higher retention rates and lower turnover.
Environmental wellness is also a component of the industry’s shift to a new safety perspective of whole-person health. When workers aren’t at their healthiest, both physically and mentally, they could be putting themselves and their coworkers in danger on construction sites. Construction leaders are putting more focus on employee’s well-being as a way to prevent accidents and promote safety. Creating a work environment that is conducive to their well-being is part of that.
The Expanding Role of Safety in Construction
Today, safety involves much more than addressing environmental hazards on construction sites. Promoting employee health and wellbeing is becoming an essential safety strategy to ensure workers are performing at their best. As the concept of safety evolves, construction leaders are putting more focus on preventive care, mental and behavioral health, and creating a worksite culture of well-being.