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Bechtel’s Impact Report

Confronting Suicide in the Construction Community

There was a time – not so long ago – when death and injury in heavy construction were accepted as normal. Building plans would include a specific estimate for the likely number of fatalities. Tragic of course, we used to think, but also inevitable when human bodies mix with powerful machines to move massive amounts of earth, concrete, and steel.

The construction industry worked for decades to dismantle that mindset. We adopted new practices, equipment, and technologies designed to prevent jobsite accidents. Today, at Bechtel, virtually every metric shows that the teams on our projects have never been safer.

Yet there was something big that we missed. A different problem we struggled to see.

Despite all our success in protecting construction workers while they are on the job, a devastatingly high number return to their home, their hotel room, or their residence camp, and end their own life. Our industry now loses five times as many colleagues to suicide as we do to work-place accidents.

The painful truth is that among job occupations in the United States, construction has one of the highest rates of suicide. A person working in our field is more than twice as likely to die from suicide when compared with the general population. According to the Centers for Disease Control, statistics show 56 out of every hundred thousand workers will lose their lives this way each year. In an industry that employs 10 million people, that’s roughly 5,500 annually – or more than 100 per week.

Continuing to tolerate such a terrible toll would be unconscionable. Just imagine if modern construction projects in the United States routinely experienced this rate of worker deaths. Unions, oversight agencies, and families would be in an uproar – and rightly so.

Construction workers contend with what some have called a perfect storm of mental health risk factors, including a predominantly male workforce, physically strenuous and stressful work, long hours, jobs often located away from home and family, intermittency of work, and for many, chronic pain. These risks are compounded by a culture that prides itself on pushing past challenges and getting the job done.

The time has come for us to treat mental health – and suicide prevention specifically – with the same determined focus that we have successfully brought to physical health, and as a natural extension of our historic commitment to safety.

That’s why Bechtel and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) are partnering to begin addressing this problem with direct, practical solutions. Through our company’s foundation, Bechtel is funding a $7 million dollar grant, the largest AFSP has ever received.

The initial goal is to reach 500,000 construction workers in the U.S. over the five-year life of the grant. Bechtel and AFSP will develop a council of experts to provide AFSP with insight on the construction industry and craft professionals, while also enlisting partners such as the North America's Building Trades Unions. Over time, we look forward to bringing together as many stakeholders as we can under this “big tent.”

To their credit, other countries, including the U.K. and Australia, are well ahead of the U.S. in their prevention response. While we are launching our initial efforts here in the U.S., we plan to expand our focus in the coming years to create similar partnerships across the globe. In the meantime, we can learn from the progress others are making.

As an engineering and construction firm building vital infrastructure around the world, Bechtel starts with the conviction that every kind of damage is preventable, whether disruptions to daily life and commerce, endangering the environment, or above all, any harm to the well-being of our people or the public.

We already know the value that each one of our craft and trade professionals brings to that calling. We need to be sure that they know it too, along with the value their life and work brings to everyone else in building the kind of projects that make a difference in the world.

Brendan Bechtel is chairman and CEO of Bechtel, a global engineering, procurement, construction, and project management company.

Learn more about Bechtel's commitment to addressing suicides in the construction industry here.

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