Stephanie Chizik: Stuart, thanks so much for joining us.
Stuart Binstock: Nice to be here with you, Stephanie.
SC: How did you get started in the industry?
SB: Wow, that goes back a long time. I was a lawyer, and I was working for a legal publishing company. A gentleman I worked with got a job at this place called the Associated General Contractors. I had no idea what that organization was. He told me a few months later that there was a job for an EEO lawyer available. I was not terribly excited about where I currently was. I applied for that job, I got it, and here we are about 35 years later.
SC: Wow, you're still around the industry and making things happen. That’s great.
SB: I’m still kickin’.
SC: Walk us through how CFMA got involved in the suicide prevention aspect of the construction industry.
SB: That’s a great question. I think the answer to that question is people make a difference. Really one person who was a member ours prompted us to look into this topic about five years ago, a gentleman name Cal Beyer. He wrote an article with a woman named Sally Spencer Thomas, who’s an expert in this field. It was on suicide and the causes of suicide. He sent it to the editor of our magazine, Kristy Domboski. Kristy walked into my office, and she said, “We usually have tax articles, succession planning. We don’t really talk about suicide prevention.” I said, “Well, you're right, we don’t. Maybe we should.”
So we took that bold leap off the cliff, having no idea what would happen from that article. I always say there was a tsunami of activity after that article came out, about five years ago now. The article just hit a nerve with the industry, and people just came out of the woodwork telling us about their stories, about people who they knew died by suicide. It not only became the right thing to do, but it was actually the right thing to do as an association. The way we explained it, a financial person in a construction company, a CFO or controller, they’re in charge of managing the assets and the resources of that company. And what is more important to a construction company than its human resources? If you can do anything to help improve the human resources that really are what make or break a construction company, you’ll improve the company. So that’s how we decided to go full bore into the subject. As I said, it was not only the right thing to do, but it was the right thing from a business standpoint.
SC: It definitely makes sense. There seems to be, at least anecdotally, a lot of times there could be a connection between finances or lack thereof and mental health or mental stability in certain times.
SB: I’ll tell you where this fits in, Stephanie, from a business standpoint in terms of your workers’ compensation claims, getting sued by people claiming they got an issue in mental health. Protecting people’s mental health and improving it, frankly, is good business.
SC: And like you said, it’s just good to protect your workers in any way that you can, give that support.
SB: Absolutely. We talked a little bit about that in this day and age because construction, as we all know, has a stigma. People think it’s not the right industry, they’re not going to encourage their kids to go into that industry, and that’s going to be even worse if they find out that we have the highest suicide rate of any industry in the country. That’s why it’s important as a company to really look at this issue closely, see what you can do as a company, and improve your company’s ratings in this regard. It will help you from an employment standpoint. It will bring in folks who don’t necessarily, didn’t think they wanted to be part of the industry, maybe will reconsider. Then if they see that you care about your employees and you're worried about their mental health, that’s going to be a win-win for the company.
SC: You mentioned that — I think you were referencing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they came out with a report that said that construction is the number one industry for suicide. Is there any — I don’t mean to put you on the spot — but do we know why that is?
SB: Yes. We do. First of all, let me put this in context. This is really important. OSHA spends a lot of money monitoring safe workplaces. They have what’s called the Fatal Four, which I don’t have off the top of my head what the Fatal Four are. Those are the four main accidents that happen where people die from those. In 2018, there were about 1000 of those fatalities, and in the same year, there were 5000 construction suicides. The thing that our members put so much time and so much money on, which is safety, and they try and prevent falls and accidents. …
So the question you asked is Why? Well, there’s a few reasons. First of all, just from a demographic standpoint, men, white men actually from their early 20s through their 50s, for some reason account for the bulk of suicides. And we are in a male-dominated industry. That demographic does not help.
The other factors that have considerable impact — there’s kind of a tough-guy culture in construction. So you don’t really share your feelings. There’s family separation and isolation, when a contractor or laborer travels. Frequently travels. So you have separation and isolation. There could be sleep deprivation due to shift work. They’re seasonal at layoffs and end-of-project furloughs, which put a lot of stress on a person and their family. It unfortunately has a fairly tolerant culture for alcohol and substance abuse. It’s the industry with the highest use of prescription opioids. Some of that relates to the fact that folks get hurt, and they have chronic pain. That impact.
Then there’s two other factors: performance pressures, and in today’s day and age — and I know you wanted to talk about COVID — there’s a lot of pressure on people at work. Some places around the country haven’t had much of an impact but some have shut down. You can imagine what that would do, the pressures it would put on the company and therefore it would put on the employee. The last reason is, unfortunately, access to lethal means. Guns are pretty plentiful in the culture of many of the folks in the construction industry. That is unfortunately the easiest way to die by suicide. All of those factors add up to why the suicide rate’s so high in construction.
SC: That makes perfect sense now that you’ve laid it all out and all those compounding factors can add up to a tricky situation. You mentioned — I hate to mention this always, it feels like it’s continuously in our vernacular these days, but we can’t avoid it — that COVID-19 is still going on right now. I was thinking how something like that affects the economy and how it could affect the bottom line of what’s going on with these construction companies. That could affect the mental health of the workers out in the field, too. It sounds like that might be accurate.
SB: It’s an added stressor. That’s the way I would put it, Stephanie. It’s an added stress in an already stressful environment.
SC: Certainly not helping, that’s for sure.
SC: Just to clarify one point. We’re talking about OSHA, we’re talking about the CDC. I’m imagining that a lot of these numbers we’re referring to — because we do have an international subscriber base — these are probably U.S. based. Is that correct?
SB: They are U.S. based. But I will tell you, if you have any folks in the U.K. or in Australia, they have very vigorous suicide prevention campaigns in both of those countries. In fact, their efforts make ours pale in comparison. I believe in Australia, solely for construction, they have about a $1.5 million budget and hundreds of employees on the payroll working to support suicide prevention. We’re a country — I don’t know how many times bigger, maybe 10 times bigger — and we don’t have anywhere near that kind of support for this issue. This is not just a U.S. issue. This is an international — this is a worldwide issue.
SC: I’ve been at this job a little over seven years, and this is the first in-depth conversation I’ve had or heard about regarding suicide. Is it partially a problem of it’s not being discussed enough in the country?
SB: Yes. We really started the conversation five years ago. Before that article that I just mentioned, it was not on anybody’s radar. This is a relatively new topic in the construction industry. I’ll tell you an interesting story I like to tell. I think it says a lot about the industry. I was talking to an electrical contractor at our annual conference a few years ago. I told him that we had started this initiative on suicide prevention. He looked at me and his eyes kind of bugged out at me, and he said, “How’d you know about us?” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “How’d you find about what happened at our company?” I had no idea what happened at his company. He said, “We’ve had three suicides in the last 18 months. The last one was a foreman who hung himself in the boiler room of a Fortune 100 company. I had to go out and explain to the Fortune 100 company how we’d continue to do business.” Not only did he have to deal with that, but then the spouse of the person who died by suicide then sued the company.
So this is a topic that people have not wanted to talk about. I end up at a lot of safety meetings because this is someplace where they’ll talk about this. I was kind of admonishing one organization. They said that they have their safety conference. It wasn’t their safety and health conference. It was their safety conference. Safety is easy to talk about. You have to wear a hard hat. There are things you can do to prevent a fatality. But when you start to talk about mental health, it is a very complex, very difficult conversation. There is a stigma about talking about it, so what we’re trying to do is remove the stigma.
SC: That’s probably constant work for you guys. But that makes sense to start it at the safety level — the safety and health level, that is.
SB: I always say that this is an issue that should have come from the safety department of construction companies. But the reality is it wasn’t, and we started the initiative. We picked up the mantle. I always kid. People say, “How did a bunch of accountants end up leading the effort of suicide prevention?” We did it because there was a vacuum, and we decided to fill the vacuum.
SC: I’m so glad you guys stepped in. It sounds like the industry certainly needs it. And to be able to discuss it more is great, too. Thanks for sharing that story. I have a question it made me think of. If a suicide has happened, are there resources that you guys have for coworkers and family members that you can share? Then on the flip side, if someone is in trouble or is having a challenging time, do you have resources for those people as well?
SB: The answer to both questions is yes. Now is probably a good time for me to mention the website, www.preventconstructionsuicide.com. That is the website of the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention. What happened, as you mentioned in your introduction, is once we got into this space, we realized that CFMA by itself was not going to be able to handle this issue. It’s much bigger than CFMA. It’s the whole industry. We embarked on finding partners, and found lots of them, lots of associations, lots of folks who were willing to help us. So then we jettisoned off the alliance from CFMA and turned it into a separate entity. So we have a separate entity where people can get tax deductions if they make contributions to the organization. So we’re housed separately. It’s not just CFMA. There are a lot of folks doing great work. ABC has been very involved. They’ve done some great work. The labor unions have gotten involved. It’s really become an industry by definition.
But I think I avoided answering your question, Stephanie. I never like when people do that to me. Let me answer your question. That is, we do have things on the front end and on the back end. The first thing is to know the warning signs. If you go to our website, you’ll see the warning signs listed. We even have little pocket things that you can purchase from us that you can pass out to all your employees that say, “Know the Warning Signs.” They have all the warning signs listed on there so someone doesn’t have to memorize them but can just look at this and see if it fits. Like if someone is feeling sad or depressed most of the time. Increased use of alcohol or drugs. Extreme mood swings. Feeling hopeless and helpless. Things of that nature.
Then there are specific construction industry warning signs. Decreased productivity. Increased conflict with coworkers. Possible near accidents, injuries. Decreased problem solving ability and increased tardiness. Those are kind of the warning signs. Those are on the front end. We have partnered with a group called Living Works, and they have a training program that we offer at a very discounted rate on our website. It teaches you to do four things. The acronym is TASC. Tune in. Ask. State. And Connect. Those are the four steps when you meet somebody, you think they may be having issues. There’s a whole training program involved in that to help. The other answer is yes, we do have downstream. If you do unfortunately run into suicide, we do have information.
SC: That’s great. It sounds like there’s a lot of resources out there that people could check out. One last question I have is, What can we do as people in the industry, people in the field? It sounds like staying informed. But is there anything else we can do to help move that needle in a positive way?
SB: I think we have lots of resources available for folks to use that they can use on the jobsite. We have toolbox talks. We have top three things that you can use in the field. For the management of the company, we have a document of an integration checklist, where you can look at five different parts of your company and see how prepared you are. There are crisis response questions. Are you ready if a crisis comes up? What’s the corporate culture, and is that leading to problems like this? There’s lots of things you can do, both at the field level and at the headquarters level.
All those resources are available on that website. I would strongly suggest you go sift through that, take a look. I think you’ll find a great deal of information available. I would be remiss if I did not say, and if you are otherwise inclined, we would love for you to donate. It’s a totally volunteer effort. We have not — CFMA has contributed funds and other companies have contributed funds — but there’s no dues to be part of this.
We ask people to STAND up to fight against suicide. STAND up is an acronym that I can’t find right now, but I will. STAND up for suicide prevention is about creating safe cultures, providing training to identify and help those at risk, raising awareness about the suicide crisis in construction, normalizing conversation around suicide, and ultimately decreasing the risks associated with suicide in construction. We’d like people to go to the website and actually sign the pledge. We think that will increase the awareness. We’re going to continue to fight for the people in the construction industry.
SC: Again, for our listeners, the website is preventconstructionsuicide.com. It sounds like that’s a good starting place for people to find all of the other information that you’ve mentioned. Thanks so much. Obviously you saw a need and you stepped in where you needed to. It’s a great fight to fight. Thank you so much for doing that. And thank you so much for chatting with us, Stuart. It’s been a great chat.
SB: My pleasure, Stephanie. I enjoyed it as well. I thank you for highlighting this in your magazine and highlighting it in the industry because the more we do that, the more we can remove the stigma and the more progress we can make.
SC: Thanks, Stuart. Have a good one.
SB: Thanks, you too.
For more information, contact: CIASP, www.preventconstructionsuicide.com