- Brian M Winningham
Construction Suicide Prevention Week 2022
If you are considering harming yourself, please call 988 to talk to someone right away.
(For everyone who has ever felt like there was no hope, I see you.)
Today, September 5, 2022, begins Construction Suicide Prevention week. I wrote an article at the end of July called The Mental Health Crisis in Construction. You can find that article here. In it I detailed the staggering numbers of deaths by suicide within the Construction Industry. Totaling over three times the national rate, more than 53 construction workers die by suicide out of every 100,000 people who work in our industry. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6745a1.htm?s_cid=mm6745a1_w#T2_down
One of those numbers in 2019 was my friend, Brian. Like many construction friendships, we lost touch when I left the company where we worked together. Brian was a Military Veteran with a loving family. I don’t know the circumstances around Brian’s death, and what was happening in his life when he lost it. What mattered more than anything to me, was that Brian had touched me. He had helped me deeply on my Lean journey to learn to see things differently. I’m certain he didn’t know and now there is no way to let him know how much he helped me. I wish I had told him. I wish I could tell him. I really miss him.
The Construction industry is full of trauma, and we mostly just call it a regular workday. Across the whole industry, people are treated as objects and obstacles. The people managing the work are so far removed from the realities of the value producing work that dysfunction can be the only outcome. When you look at how we operate, the terrible outcomes are only pre-written because of our systemic built-in failure mechanisms. I shared the article referenced above at the same place I sourced the photos of Porta Potties in the article, on Reddit. I shared it in several different sub-Reddit forums related to Construction and got supportive responses from almost everyone. What I didn’t anticipate were the stories that people would share. These stories deserve to be heard. I hope they touch you as much as they have touched me. Please Read on…
I’m counting my blessings as well. Just being here counts as the first and biggest blessing. I check off many boxes for the kind of person who might contemplate and attempt suicide. I am male, white, a Veteran, a Combat Veteran, work in the construction Industry, and am 57. All these things plus many other things from my past could lead you to see me this way. I also live with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, meaning that I have had many trauma inducing events in my life. Some of those have been the result of working in this industry. To illustrate, I’ll share two stories, one from the beginning of my career and one from just a few years ago.
I began work in the Construction Industry when I was ten years old in 1975 at a local lumber company in my very small hometown. My parents made me go to work. It might seem strange for me to work at that age, but I count it as a blessing, because that was the beginning of my Construction career. I worked with my father. As the store Operations Manager, he was my boss, but he was also a co-worker. This is a little confusing for a ten-year-old boy. I am extremely grateful for the time I got to spend with my dad though. We worked together almost continuously from when I was ten until I was about twenty-one. He has taught me so much. I am forever grateful for our relationship and the love he has always shown me.
The place where I worked sold paint, and doors, and windows, and lumber, and carpet, and nails, and hardware, and so many wonderful things to a ten-year-old boy. It was like living an adventure and getting paid for it. I did lots of exploring. I also worked very hard and learned so much every day! I started working in the store, sweeping up but soon began waiting on customers! I really enjoyed getting to talk to people and helping them find the things they needed. I became very knowledgeable about all of the things the store sold and by association started to learn about Construction.
I worked at the lumber company every summer from when I was ten until I was fifteen. The owners hired a recent high school graduate each year after school ended to be their summer delivery driver for the store. It was mostly young men getting ready to go off to school or somewhere else and they only stayed a few months. The summer I was twelve, I was assigned the task of training the 18-year-old delivery person. I ended up doing that each year until I left. Some thought it was funny, some were resentful. I remember one person who was even kind. I started driving at work the summer I turned twelve also.
The lumber company also operated a General Contracting business. They mostly built residential houses, although eventually they built a senior housing project in my small hometown. The name of the street I lived on at the time was named after the founder of the lumber company. He had built most of the houses in my neighborhood. The owners that I worked for were a husband and wife who had bought the business from the original owner. There were a few local men who worked there like my father. I really enjoyed most of my time there. I remember getting my first paycheck. It was $6.00 and they gave it to me out of the register.
When I was fifteen, I stopped working in the store and was working out on project sites. I learned and experienced a lot of things during that summer. I installed wiring. I installed plumbing. I helped frame. I installed lots of insulation because no one else wanted to do it. I was also assaulted. Five grown men held me down and pumped grease from a grease gun all over my genitals and all in my pants. They said they were just hazing me, but the truth was, I had smarted off and they wanted to teach me a lesson. One of those five men was the owner of the company. I quit on the spot and walked eight miles to get home, grease still in my pants.
Fast forward just about thirty-seven years to the Spring of 2017, I was “laid-off” from my job because I refused a remote work assignment. The person who I worked for, badly wanted to fire me and actually told me I was fired that day. That only changed when I emailed the person in charge of North America and the head of HR asking exactly why I was being fired, since I hadn’t committed any offense that would allow them to fire me. The ended up offering a pretty meager severance package that I accepted.
The remote project that they were asking me to go work on, was months behind schedule and way over budget. Everyone on that project was working crazy hours, but I wasn’t afraid of that. I had done this for them plenty of times before. In fact, during a six-month remote project for this same company, during May of 2011 I saw my wife and children a total of three days the whole month and that was at my step-father-in-law’s funeral in California. We live in Texas and my remote project was in Texas also!
Of the seven and a half years that I worked for this company, five were spent on sites remote from my family. None of those folks I worked for even asked me why I refused the assignment. I was no longer a person, just an impediment to their will. They all eventually ended up fired or “laid-off’ too. The project lost a lot of money and ended a lot of people’s careers with that organization, way more than just the three people in charge who got fired. One person, a very good friend of mine, even lost their life in a vehicle accident after working around 80 hours for weeks on end. These kinds of hours had been going on for months for everyone on the project. Those hours kept up after he died too.
My reason for refusing the assignment? My daughter, whose teenage years I had mostly missed while working for this company, was graduating High School in seventeen days. Having to chose my daughter over my career was scary, but I wouldn’t have missed her graduation for the whole world. That choice was part of what led me to where I am today, writing this. People in our industry face these kinds of terrible choices daily.
There are more stories, too many to even remember. It is hard some days to not be bitter and triggered and just generally angry about it all. But, feeling like that is a terrible way to go through life. This, I know from experience. Besides that, I love this industry and the people in it, so there's lots of reasons not to be angry and bitter, too.
The people working in our industry from the laborers to the CEO’s deserve to be safe in their work, physically, mentally, and spiritually. The construction industry as we currently practice the work, destroys all three of these things in people and that has to end. Our industry, the Construction Industry, needs to stop systemically hurting people. We must get rid of the trauma in our work. Just because a Mom or Dad is also a superintendent or a project manager, or a laborer, or an apprentice, or a journeyman, or a tradesman, or an accountant, or a safety manager, or an operations manager or a vice president, shouldn’t mean that they have to made to chose between work and their children’s lives. Just because a person is young or doesn’t know how to do something yet is no reason to demean them and treat them badly. Hazing is nothing more than systemic bullying that adds nothing to the work experience for anyone. We need these people to chose to work in our industry! These actions just keep transferring the trauma forward into new generations. Why?
The way to begin fixing this is simple, though not easy in practice. We must never, ever lose sight of the humanness in the people we work with, and we must especially never lose sight of our own humanness and humaneness. We can only fix this by being brave, by speaking up and speaking out when we see wrong and when we do wrong. For those of us who have been in this industry for a long time, we must fully embrace the changes needed in our industry. We have to look at our same old problems with brand new eyes. We need new people, with new ideas to join our industry. It’s critical that our industry more closely resemble the communities we serve so that we can better serve those communities. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is a great first step on that path, but not the only one required. Everyone must decide together to make the work easier at all levels. Easier creates more certainty and more value. Easier is safer and less expensive. Easier is better and we all deserve it. Easier is also a choice and a commitment. Easier will also be very hard some days.
We lose just over 1,000 people every year to work accidents in our industry. In 2019, over 5,000 additional people who work in our industry died by suicide. That number makes my heart ache. It’s hard for me to process. It's critical that we start building hope back into our processes or these numbers could get worse.
We can change this industry, but each of us must look inward. We have to make the change in ourselves, individually, and only then can we become an example for someone else who wants to make a positive change in their life. Our industry doesn’t have to be this way, and it’s in our power to make it better. We can reject the existing status quo. We can make our industry better for everyone. I hope each of you will make that choice and that commitment.
If you are considering harming yourself, please call 988 to talk to someone right away. We need you. The Construction Industry needs you to help us change. I know it will be hard but please speak up about what you are going through. I have found that sharing my story has been a great way to grow peace in my heart. What will you do to grow peace in your heart? I’m not a professional, but if you just want someone to talk to, please reach out. We can make this better together. 210-383-4979 & firstname.lastname@example.org
Please visit https://www.osha.gov/preventingsuicides and https://constructionsuicideprevention.com/ for resources and information.