CE Update February 2019

11 Feb 2019

Last October I had an article in Stuff highlighting the serious issue of suicide within the construction industry. I spoke about research that Site Safe is currently undertaking in partnership with BRANZ on the subject, which will be published soon.

One of the comments on the piece really hit home to me, the need for us as an industry to lift the shutters on mental wellbeing more broadly, moving beyond the stigma to have open and honest discussions as a first step to dealing with the issue.

 “Channelupdown” wrote:

“My apprentice took his own life last year. Since then I’ve wondered as his employer is there more that I could have done.

“He was facing a tough time, a break-up, but still seemed positive and discussed future events that he was excited about. If the study results in recommendations that address the negatives in the construction culture, then that’s a good thing.

“Something I have come to believe is that the person struggling is not always going to say they are and that you need to be strong enough to ask them how they are doing, and even if they have considered ending it all.

“This can be a difficult thing in the industry as many are afraid of the touchy-feely.

“It’s not too much to ask that mental well-being be mentioned in a safety briefing to help create a culture of support.”

It’s clear to me, that as an industry we need to talk about how we have effective conversations with our workers and how we create workplace environments where it is okay, for men in particular, to open up and seek help. Beyond that, we also need to ensure that there are networks and programmes that our people can hook into to get ongoing support.   

 It’s past time we broaden the H&S conversation beyond physical harms to think hard about how we tackle insidious risks like psychosocial exposure to harm.

Construction is a hard business. It is physically demanding, it has a strong ‘bloke’ culture, and the pressure’s always on to make a living. All this intertwined with people’s broader life challenges and issues.

Despite that, I am confident that the construction sector can lead the way in addressing a problem too big and in some cases too tragic to ignore.

The Site Safe/BRANZ research has reviewed 340 coroner’s cases of suicide across a ten-year period that involved people working in the construction sector. We are hoping the results of that research will be able to contribute to supporting and improving intervention strategies and support programmes.  

The issues are complex, and obviously there is no one universal solution but opening up a conversation may be the toughest nut to crack in an industry that has such a strong blokey culture. Last week out of the blue a book landed on my desk in the mail.

Dave Burt owns a successful national electrical contracting business and has detailed his own struggle with depression in his book; ‘Lengthening the Shadow’.

Shadows book cover


Dave has taken it upon himself to be part of a positive culture shift. His bottom line is that ‘mates should be looking out for their mates’ and ‘if you want to be tough, then ask the tough questions!”.  Dave has a great conversation opener; “What’s happening in your world?” that he is promoting as an ice breaker to a more open conversation.

Overseas, more formal programmes have been developed such as the Mates in Construction programme in Australia. A recent (2016) five-year review was cautiously optimistic that the programme was having a positive impact but it is important to note that the programme is targeted at large sites and has a quite complex structure of training, support networks and data collection. There would be challenges implementing it successfully in New Zealand due to scalability and reach, but it is a very promising initiative.

 It is important to me that as an industry leader Site Safe plays an active part in supporting the industry confront and positively address health issues in a meaningful way. In addition to undertaking and supporting ongoing research, we will be weaving mental wellbeing into our training programmes at various levels and looking to partner with other organisations and government agencies to support intervention and support programmes across the sector.

 In the meantime, we can all take the initiative of checking in on our people, to find out ‘what’s going on in their world’. It may feel uncomfortable at first and may be met with little response. But as people realise that we really do care about the wellbeing of our workers, mates and loved ones, the conversations will open up and trust will grow.

 I will finish with posting another comment on my original article: “My son is an apprentice builder with a kind, caring and sensitive nature. I always check in on how his day has been, just to keep a sense of – and be aware – of any red flags.”

 It’s the sort of thing we can all do.