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Suicide seen as ‘next frontier’ in workplace safety risks

NEW ORLEANS — Health and safety professionals are beginning conversations on a growing workplace safety concern that goes beyond fall protection and chemical hazards: workplace suicide.

Steven Guillory, the division manager of risk management for the City of Houston, Texas, admitted that the topic didn’t interest him years ago, speaking during a roundtable discussion at the American Society of Safety Professionals’ Safety 2019 conference in New Orleans on Monday.

“I am a safety person,” he said. “If you would have asked me four, five, six years ago whether suicide was my job, I would have said no. But at the end of the day, suicide prevention is pretty much everybody’s responsibility.”

In 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics hit a record in its 25-year tally of workplace suicides at 291. The number dipped in 2017 to 275, but has generally shown a gradual climb over the past decade, according to BLS statistics.

Mr. Guillory called these statistics “sobering” and in line with the national rise in suicide in general.

But employers are among those who can help stunt the trend, said Shawn Lewis, safety and occupational health manager for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Alexandria, Virginia.

“As safety professionals when you identify that there is a problem you talk to your professionals on how to make information available,” he said. “You make that information available by any means.”

Some of the tips include improving employee assistance programs, paying attention to people at work and asking how someone is doing.

“Educate your employees with awareness” about suicide, said Mr. Lewis. “What are you doing to increase the awareness of the warning signs? The systemic problem is not having the awareness and prevention strategies and the resources.”

In an interview with Business Insurance, participant Steven Nyblom, a risk manager with Los Angeles County in Los Angeles, California, said the issue has hit the county hard, with first responder suicides peaking and causing the county’s board of supervisors to recently order a deep dive into the underlying causes.

“I think all employers need to pay attention to this and unfortunately they don’t tend to look at mental health issues that much,” he said. “I don’t have a good answer for that. Many employers have a wellness plan and an employee assistance program but I don’t know that they are terribly effective and they certainly don’t get into the culture of environments where people are comfortable with reaching out (for help). There needs to be a great acceptance” of those suffering.

Cal Beyer, director of risk management for Issaquah, Washington-based Lakeside Industries Inc., an asphalt paving contractor doing business in the Pacific Northwest, called workplace suicide “the next frontier in workplace safety” during a separate session on Monday. 

Reducing the stigma of mental health is the number one thing companies can do, he said.

 

Construction workers are especially susceptible to mental health issues due to such factors as “stoic, old school and tough guy culture,” sleep disruption and isolation from family, he said. Many also lack access to health care while substance abuse is also a factor, Mr. Beyer added.

Training construction workers to identify the signs of suicide and the prevalence of suicide in their industry is the other step companies can do, he said.

The nonprofit Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention offers tips on training and awareness, he said. It also offers on-site training opportunities for supervisors and workers, he added. A simple awareness sticker—he handed out packets of them to attendees—on a hardhat giving workers the number for a helpline can make a difference, he said. Posters are also available, he added.

“Stigma is what kills people,” he said.