The Impact of Mental Health on Construction Site Safety

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The construction industry often is the one sector that sets the gold standard for health and safety across the board. Business owners must be seen to be working to the letter of the law, and ensuring that all their employees do so too. However, for a sector so heavily involved in health matters, it’s concerning to learn that when it comes to mental health they have a long way to go. 

It’s unsurprising to find that for many, it’s financial burdens and worries that impact mental health the most. Here we’ll explore – with the help of some expert knowledge –  the impacts of mental health on construction site safety, covering worries about losing income and how to deal with this, what businesses can do to improve the support they offer their employees and how a decent standard of construction site insurance can do a lot to ease stress for business owners and employees.

How can we encourage more construction workers to come forward and talk about their mental health challenges?

Encouraging construction workers to come forward and talk about their mental health challenges is crucial for creating a supportive and healthy work environment. 

Construction workers often face physically demanding and high-stress conditions, making it essential to prioritize their mental well-being. Here are some strategies to promote open discussions about mental health: 

Raise Awareness: Begin by raising awareness about the importance of mental health within the construction industry. Use various platforms, such as safety meetings, toolbox talks, newsletters, and posters, to educate workers about mental health issues and reduce stigma. 

Leadership Involvement: Leaders and supervisors play a pivotal role in shaping the workplace culture. When leadership actively supports and discusses mental health, it sets a positive example for employees to follow. 

Training and Education: Provide training sessions to equip workers, supervisors, and managers with the knowledge and skills to identify signs of mental distress and provide appropriate support. This can help create a more empathetic and informed workforce. 

Anonymous Reporting: Implement a confidential reporting system that allows workers to share their mental health concerns anonymously. This can help those who are hesitant to come forward due to fear of stigma or repercussions. 

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs): Offer EAPs that provide confidential counseling services to employees. These programs can be valuable resources for workers struggling with mental health issues. 

Tailored Resources: Provide resources that address the specific challenges faced by construction workers. This could include information on managing stress, coping with irregular schedules, and dealing with physical fatigue. 

Regular Check-Ins: Encourage supervisors and managers to have regular check-ins with their team members. These informal conversations can provide opportunities for workers to discuss their well-being. From Marlys Wilson CEO/Lead Auditor at 1st Quality Safety

What do you think the best approach to dealing with mental health issues in construction workers would be?

“That’s a difficult question, and I’m not a mental health expert, but I would think it would be no different than dealing with anyone working in a high stress environment.

Many construction workers have to travel for work. Those working in remote areas can be away from family and friends for extended periods of time. Those working more locally often have long commutes and work early hours or often irregular shifts, depending on the sector of construction. Poor sleep, isolation and high stress can be significant triggers for the onset of mental health issues, all factors that are prevalent in the construction industry. Employers and managers need to create a welcoming and supportive environment to ensure that workers feel encouraged to come forward if they are struggling with mental health issues. And many are, but this is a broader societal issue.

More resources to deal with acute and chronic mental health challenges are most certainly required. Mental health awareness has never been higher; however, the resources for treatment are in very short supply across the country. The shortage of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and primary care physicians can often lead to individuals giving up before the can access mental health supports. Employers will provide individuals experiencing mental health challenges time off, and through their benefits packages, access to professional counselling. But if it takes upwards of 1 to 3 months to access a professional that can help, many individuals often give up before receiving counselling or treatment.

As I said earlier, it’s a broader societal issue with no simple solutions.” – Bill Ferreira, Executive Director at BuildForce

How can safety training improve mental health?

“I sold equipment for over 30 years.  I’ve been doing Safety Training for about 17 years as well.  Combine the two, and I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years.  Many years ago, it was the “Hurry up and get it done, no matter what it takes”, type of attitude.  

Over the past 20 years, or so, it’s changed.  Now it’s more “how can we do this more safely”.  Safety training can take an individual from “panic and recklessness”, to “let’s get the job done safely”.  

There are still some companies out there that just throw their employees into the job without any training whatsoever.  This is where the employee doesn’t know there are resources to get trained on the equipment or the job.  They just listen to the “Boss” and try to do what they can.  They make mistakes, they damage equipment and product and have low self esteem.

On the other hand, most companies now have safety people on staff to make sure everyone is trained properly, operates equipment properly and safely, according to the regulations set out in the Occupational Health & Safety Manuals.  These people thrive on someone who actually cares about their wellbeing.  Employers who offer Safety Training to their staff, are the safe places to work and have less staffing issues because the staff seem happier in better environment” – Duane Gwilliam for Duane Gwilliam Training

What are the main mental health challenges for construction site workers?

“Among the contributing factors for manual workers in construction are intense workloads, tight deadlines, money worries and working in isolation, as well as physical factors such as noise levels, inadequate temperature control and uncertainty of working location.

In the last two to three years, Brexit, COVID-19 and the Russia-Ukraine conflict have only heightened the industry’s challenges, and we are now seeing a serious mismatch between rising construction output and the number of skilled workers available to carry out the work. 

This can only put more pressure on businesses and employees to meet deadlines and satisfy their clients. A large proportion of construction workers are self-employed and paid by the amount of work they produce, e.g. bricks laid for a bricklayer or work per square metre for a plasterer. 

This can bring uncertainty due to the underlying worry of not having enough work each month, burnout from taking on too much to compensate for the leaner times, and delays out of their control such as disruption due to bad weather or delays in the delivery of materials” Tracy Keep writing for Gallagher News and Insights

What advice is out there to help protect construction workers?

“Talk – despite recent progress, construction is still a male-dominated industry: figures from Statistica on the number of people employed in the UK construction industry show us that in Q2 2020 1,939,000 men were employed in the UK construction industry compared to 298,000 women. It will take some time for construction to shake off its “tough guy” image. But it’s important for employers to foster a workplace where their workers can ask for help, talk about their concerns, and seek support. Raising awareness, sharing information, training, and challenging behaviours are all part of this.

Lead – leaders in the business need to show real commitment to creating mentally healthier workplaces. This includes leading by example – and speaking up about and being honest about their own experiences. That way they can be both leaders and role models.

Check risk assessments – do your risk assessments cover both physical risks and mental health risks? If you’re not sure if they do, review them now! 

Support – consider what support you can offer, for example, through trained peer support, and mental health first aiders. Consult your workers about your specific business and culture and see what works and doesn’t work, and where more support can be provided.” Jon Cooper and Michelle Essen contributing to Womble Bond Dickinson

What can be done to help construction site workers worried about losing their income because of poor mental health?

“Income predictability and job security are big issues, and we will all at some stage of our lives experience how money worries can impact our mental well-being. Many construction pay rates depend on an individual’s skill level, which is only fair. But how much the individual actually earns depends on how many hours they are on site. Effectively, someone who is highly skilled and quick at their work could be penalized for not being on-site for long enough to pay the mortgage. A project under programme pressure from the start will drive more people to work longer hours and inevitably drive up outturn costs.

Firms that maximize direct employment and establish high-quality training schemes generally benefit from committed, long-serving employees who see the benefit of better job security and becoming known and valued employees.

Employee healthcare packages are being introduced, and site health monitoring is a vital step.” John Chick from the Federation of Piling Specialists, writing for GE Plus

Can better mental health improve risk management in the construction industry?

“Mental health issues have, for many years, been a major enigma impacting businesses and employees in almost every industry in Ontario. There have been multiple studies attempting to identify the cause and contributory factors and the application of various approaches in an effort to limit the negative consequences resulting from this malady. Managing mental health disorders has been challenging for workers, physicians, and employers, especially when the causes of the disorder are often split between personal and work-related stresses/circumstances.

The Workplace Safety & Insurance Board, after years of intensive and rigorous attention in the adjudication of individual mental health claims, began handling one particular disorder differently. In April 2016, the Province of Ontario passed legislation creating a presumption [clause] that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) diagnosed in first responders is work-related. The WSIB adopted the legislation and created policies and procedures to follow the new legislation. “Once a first responder is diagnosed with PTSD by either a psychiatrist or a psychologist, the claims process to be eligible for WSIB benefits will be expedited, without the need to prove a causal link between PTSD and a workplace event.” 

In January 2018, the WSIB extended entitlement to benefits for chronic mental stress arising out of and in the course of the worker’s employment. However, a worker would not be entitled if the chronic mental stress was caused by decisions or actions of the worker’s employer. This includes decisions related to the worker’s employment,  including a decision to change the work to be performed or the working conditions, to discipline the worker or to terminate the employment.

During my tenure of 30+ years with the WSIB, one of my engagements involved investigation of claims for mental stress disorders. The reason I mention this is to highlight the evolution of the way the WSIB deals with such claims and subsequent legislation of the presumption clause described above. A common finding in my investigations was the individual’s hesitancy in admitting and reporting that they were experiencing difficulties with anxiety, depression etc., due to a concern of the stigma revealing these symptoms create. Police were especially affected by this posture and felt the need to appear to be seen as strong and infallible. 

This preamble leads to the primary question of improving risk management specific to the construction industry through better mental health. Aside from the obvious and for the most part well-known practices, such as encouraging and supporting a lifestyle that includes regular exercise, proper diet, appropriate break time, creating a positive, stable and predictable work environment.

Of course, ensuring the supervisors/managers are well-trained and skilled in managing staff will go a long way in preventing work-related stress disorders. An employee may be entitled to WSIB benefits under the “Chronic Mental Stress” policy, “workplace harassment occurs when a person or persons, while in the course of the employment, engage in a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker, including bullying, that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome.” Management staff should be trained and be aware of what the WSIB considers workplace harassment, or “conduct that a reasonable person would perceive as egregious or abusive”.

In my experience, there is one provision that is usually absent within the construction environment, and that is providing a resource, a person, group or any outlet where the employee can anonymously reveal and discuss their work-related frustrations and concerns. Releasing these negative emotions and discussing ways to minimize the individual’s response is key.” – Gary Holder, Paralegal, Senior Corporate Executive, Client Success Division The IRM Solution

The benefits of first-class construction site insurance

Our expert advice above is clear on the challenges and issues construction site workers face. 

A final way forward, and still one of the best ways of providing a financial security blanket for construction employees who have mental health concerns is by ensuring that proper construction site insurance is in place. 

Insurance schemes like these can protect businesses financially in the event employees become sick or are injured on the job, allowing them to receive protection, reduce coverage requirements for legal fees, and cover medical costs related to workplace injuries.

Construction insurance and in particular policies that include worker’s compensation and general liability insurance offer protection to the contractor and their employees from high costs related to any medical expenses, legal fees, and property damage repair and replacement that arise from accidents. 

Putting something like this in place can go a long way to helping construction workers who are having issues with their mental health, perhaps after suffering a work-related illness or injury that means they are without income for a substantial period of time. 

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