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Contractors, construction unions pushing mental health reforms


Workers in the construction trade commit suicide at a higher rate than those in any other major industry group, except mining, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Faced with that sobering statistic, a construction advocate organization and construction unions are partnering to raise awareness about mental health issues faced by laborers in the industry.

“Our construction workers are almost six times more likely to die by suicide than by an incident on a job site and much much greater than people in other jobs,” the Building Trades Employers’ Association’s president, Elizabeth Crowley, said.  

The BTEA, which represents 1,200 New York union contractors, last month launched a new mental health safety platform at its annual safety conference. Among other reforms, the association wants the Department of Buildings to incorporate mental wellness into its safety plans and for the city to report annually on suicides categorized by industry. 

“What’s so important to break down the stigma, the tough guy culture in the industry,” Crowley said in an interview this week. “We want our workers to go home in the healthy condition that they arrived at work in. To go back home to their families safe." 

The initiatives include proposals for mental wellness to be discussed as part of on-site safety orientations and for the city to pass a law requiring that Narcan, a medication used to reverse the effect of a drug overdose, be available on larger construction sites. The conversations around supporting mental health and preventing drug addiction and overdose are linked, said Crowley, who noted that CDC studies have shown construction workers are at the highest risk of death from overdose of any profession. 

“Narcan is easy to have on the job site,” she said. “It’s readily available, it’s easy to administer and if it can save one life it's worth it."  

Support from industry

More than 6,000 construction workers in the United States killed themselves in 2022, the Building Trades Employers’ Association, citing an analysis by The Center for Construction Research and Training, said in a recent release. 

Leaders of several major construction trade unions also attended the BTEA’s safety conference and threw their support behind the initiatives. 

“A key priority for the Building Trades is ensuring that all construction workers return home to their families at the end of each shift by advocating for their health and safety on the job site, and this includes their mental wellbeing,” Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, said in a statement. “Our tradesmen and tradeswomen are the backbone of our middle class and countless key initiatives moving forward throughout our city, and it is clear that more must be done to support their mental and physical wellbeing so that they may take full advantage of the opportunities created by a career in the unionized construction industry.” 

Crowley pointed out that many unions already have mental safety and outreach programs that the BTEA wants to build on and emphasize. “Union jobs are safer and stronger,” she said. 

The BTEA’s proposals are also supported by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The group’s CEO, Bob Gebbia, argued that the initiatives would “ensure life-saving treatment is available on construction sites.” 

 “America’s hard working construction professionals are vital to our nation’s future, and tragically, we are losing so many in the industry to suicide,” he said in a statement. 

The BTEA has already started having conversations with members of the City Council’s  Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction about the proposed initiatives. 

“We want folks to know that it's OK to not be OK and that there are people who are here to help and that our employers care,” Crowley said. “The contractors know that, at times, their workers are going to need a helping hand.” 


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