And now for a different kind of toolbox talk…

“Today we’re going to talk about something bigger than PPE, policies and practices. Something we’ve never discussed before. Can’t really fit it into a toolbox. It’s called life.

“Now you can stop rolling your eyes. I’m a supervisor, not Socrates. This very much has to do with construction work. This morning, just for a few minutes, I want to break the silence and make you aware of the few things you might not know. I’m talking about the high rate of suicide in construction, the highest of any industry.

“Also want to talk about addiction and mental health. They often go hand in hand with suicide.

Grim increase

“First a few facts. Suicide in all workplaces is increasing. Did you know that? Since 2000, the number of working people who killed themselves has increased by more than a third – 34 percent. This unfortunately goes along with a larger trend. Overall, the number of suicides in the U.S. has jumped from about 29,000 in 1999 to approximately 41,000 in 2013. Suicides now kill more people every year than car crashes.

“OK. OK. I know, you’re saying, ‘Well I’m sure not suicidal.’ And you’re probably saying, ‘What do you want me to do about it? I’m not in HR.’

“Chances are you know someone, somewhere in your life, who has tried to kill themselves, thought about it, or did. I was 27 when I learned a former co-worker jumped out a window in his office downtown after learning that his wife was leaving him. He died, leaving behind a young daughter.

“Seldom is there just one reason a person decides to kill themselves, and I’m sure that was the case with this guy I knew. Some kind of mental  health issue, maybe depression or anxiety, is often involved. Family problems. Money problems. Health. Addictions. Maybe an injury where the pain doesn’t go away. But I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of ‘whys.’

Taking action

“There’s something called QPR. Sure, you’ve never heard of it. It stands for Question, Persuade, Refer.

“One of these days you might just come to work and get into a talk with someone who’s really down, depressed. Maybe he’s saying something like, ‘Man, it’s getting harder and harder to come to work.’ Or, ‘This job is leading nowhere. I can’t make ends meet.’

“Maybe he’s a buddy, maybe he’s someone you hardly know. Maybe you don’t even like the guy. You notice he doesn’t look good. Like he doesn’t get much sleep. You have a choice. You can turn a deaf ear and say it’s none of your business. That’s what most of us do. We don’t want to get into someone’s personal life. We don’t want to pry and make ‘em angry.

Safety consequences

But think about it. This is a safety issue. Someone who’s distracted, distraught, fatigued, maybe a substance abuser, is a danger not only to himself but those around him. And you’re going to do nothing?

“You’re not a counselor. You’re not a doctor. But you’re someone who cares. Think about it. We spend more time at work than we do with friends. We notice things. Someone who’s always tired. Has lost weight. Doesn’t wash up or take care of himself. Wears the same clothes. Used to joke around but doesn’t say much anymore. Maybe he’s really moody. Or seems to be alone, unhappy, somewhere else.

Changing times

“This is where Question, Persuade and Refer come in. I’m asking you to cross that line of silence. Suicide, mental health, addiction – none of us are comfortable talking about these things. But times are changing. Many of us work job to job, you know, the gig economy. Eighty percent of us live paycheck to paycheck. More of us live alone than before. More of us are on meds. Drug overdoses are the leading cause of death of people under age 50. Almost 50 percent of marriages will end in divorce or separation. A lot of us are stressed.

“It’s time to talk. It’s OK to talk about things we used to think were out of bounds. It’s OK to ask simple questions. ‘Are you OK?’ ‘Is everything all right?’

“Maybe the person opens up. Maybe they’re resistant. There’s no true, one way to talk about this, to go about this. You’ve been trained in observations. You’ve been trained to give feedback – good and corrective. You’ve been trained to step in when you see something is wrong.

“Suicide, mental health, addictions do affect safety and health. You can have incidents, near misses, risk-taking, people getting hurt. So if you see something, say something. Speak up. There are cues you pick up on. You don’t need to know the exact right words to say. You listen. You try to make a connection. You don’t judge or give opinions. You don’t reason with them.

“If they’re straight with you and say they’re in some kind of crisis, persuade them to get help. Tell them they need help. We all have cell phones. They can call our EAP anytime. You can make the call and hand them the phone. Here’s a phone number to jot down: 1-800-273-8255. It’s the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Question. Persuade. This is where you refer.

“If the person you’re talking to doesn’t make the call or refuses any help, and you know they are clearly not themselves and in trouble, then you make the call. To the EAP. To HR. To medical. If they have an immediate plan and the means on hand to kill themselves, call 911.

“Don’t let this be a case of, ‘It won’t happen to me. I’ll never cross paths with someone who’s suicidal. I can’t imagine anything like this happening.’

“This isn’t the world we live in today. Shootings, overdoses, stress, suicides, prescription meds are all increasing. Don’t bury your head in the sand.”


—  Dave Johnson, ISHN Editor,