In Construction, Suicide Prevention Becomes Part Of The Toolbox : Shots - Health News The suicide of a construction worker in 2014 became a pivotal event for the Denver-based company that employed him. The death led management to make mental health care a part of the workplace culture.
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A Construction Company Embraces Frank Talk About Mental Health To Reduce Suicide

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A Construction Company Embraces Frank Talk About Mental Health To Reduce Suicide

A Construction Company Embraces Frank Talk About Mental Health To Reduce Suicide

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Suicides in this country are increasing, and the construction industry has one of the highest rates. One employer is addressing the problem by trying to be open about it and offer support to their workers. NPR's Yuki Noguchi has their story. And just a quick warning - there is some difficult subject matter here.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: It's been five years, but the memory haunts Michelle Brown, who works as a construction superintendent. A colleague had ended his workday by giving away his personal hand tools to his co-workers. It was a generous but odd gesture. No one intending to come back to work would do such a thing.

MICHELLE BROWN: It's a huge sign. It's a huge sign. But we didn't know that then; we know it now.

NOGUCHI: The young man went home and killed himself. He was found shortly afterward by co-workers, who belatedly understood the significance of his gifts. That event shook RK Mechanical's 1,500 employees, including its co-owner, Jon Kinning.

JON KINNING: That had an impact on me of just like, oh, my God. You know, we were just completely unaware of how to even identify the signs of somebody that was struggling.

NOGUCHI: In the weeks and months afterward, Kinning brought together industry leaders and talked to suicide experts. RK, which was founded 56 years ago by Kinning's father, eventually put together what is now regarded as a model for suicide prevention in the construction industry. It involves 24-hour access to counseling services, lenient leave policies and crisis training for managers. Most importantly, says Kinning, the company embraced lots and lots of open talk about mental health.

KINNING: If somebody didn't show up in the past, we'd be like, you know, you got a job to do; you know, get in here. We've just changed our tone and our culture. I talk about mental health nearly every time I have a group of employees.

NOGUCHI: The impact?

KINNING: We've averted probably over 15 suicides since 2014. That's a pretty good success rate.

NOGUCHI: Other companies are now copying RK's approach, but the struggle is ongoing. Risk factors for suicide in this industry are still numerous, and even RK is not immune to them. Most construction workers are young and middle-aged men, the same population likeliest to die by suicide. Substance abuse runs high, especially where opioids are prescribed for workplace injuries. Lots of military vets work in construction, and many struggle with past trauma.

Superintendent Brown spent four years in the Air Force. I met her on RK's work site at Salt Lake City's new airport. She's affable and cherubic. Her hard hat bears the name Momma, a testament to her relationships with co-workers. Three years ago, she noticed an emotional decline in one of her workers, a fellow vet.

BROWN: Just nonverbal and then periods of extreme agitation. And the next day was a no-call, no-show. So at 8 o'clock, when he wasn't at work, I went into full-on alarm.

NOGUCHI: In the past, if somebody didn't show up, would you have thought about suicide?

BROWN: Probably not.

NOGUCHI: Brown reached him by phone - please, don't hang up, Brown implored, as she drove to his house. She found him drunk, with a gun in hand.

How did you feel when you understood what was happening?

BROWN: It took me back to a time in my life where, if somebody hadn't had have reached out to me, then there's a possibility I wouldn't be here because I had been where that individual was at, where I had no desire to be on this earth anymore. I didn't think it was worth it. Why bother? And somebody took the time to notice my behavior and reach out to me, and I'll be forever grateful.

NOGUCHI: Brown soothes her co-worker with the words that had helped her - you're loved; you're needed. She called a therapist, then eased him into medical leave.

BROWN: I wasn't going to lose him, if I could help.

NOGUCHI: That must've been so hard.

BROWN: It was horrible - horrible.

NOGUCHI: You're sort of getting teary-eyed.

BROWN: Yeah. Yeah (laughter).

NOGUCHI: I - you want to talk about what you're feeling?

BROWN: I guess joy. I'm happy that I'm here, happy that he's still here.

NOGUCHI: Remarkably, over her 31 years in construction, Brown says she's endured three co-worker suicides. Each case rocked everyone around them. But at the time, she says, the topic was never up for discussion.

BROWN: Was not talked about.

NOGUCHI: It wasn't talked about?

BROWN: It wasn't talked about. It was 20 years ago. It wasn't talked about.

NOGUCHI: Fast-forward to today; it's the polar opposite. Here, mental health is highlighted two to three times a week during what RK calls toolbox talks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK, now reach this guy up.

NOGUCHI: Before every shift, workers gather for stretching and announcements.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Bring it in, guys.

NOGUCHI: One recent morning, about 60 men in neon safety vests encircle superintendent Nate Lewis.

NATE LEWIS: How many of you guys here have heard this talk before about mental health and awareness on the site?

NOGUCHI: Moments earlier, Lewis told me about his own depressive and suicidal episodes two years ago. He pushed himself to work 80 hours a week to provide for a growing family. Those pressures turned to panic and anxiety attacks. As a supervisor, he says he feels sharing his story with the crew is especially important. But it isn't easy. His hands and legs visibly quiver.

LEWIS: Sorry. I'm a little nervous. I don't get nervous too much. But...

NOGUCHI: Lewis tells them he sought therapy and turned a corner. He then opens the floor. From behind him, a normally soft-spoken man walks toward the circle.

CALFORD: So a lot of you guys probably don't know who I am. My name's Calford.

NOGUCHI: Cal, as he's known, looks terrified. He apologizes for being nervous, then forges on.

CALFORD: I have a suicidal past myself. I dealt maybe six years of, you know, attempting to take my life. The last time that happened was last year in July.

NOGUCHI: From his bed at the hospital, he says he wondered what kept him coming back to a death wish.

CALFORD: Why did this keep happening, you know? Like, what's my problem? And I ended up figuring out, while talking to the therapist, that my problem was I'm not being open about myself and, you know, about my feelings and my struggles.

NOGUCHI: Struggles like being openly gay and, at times, unwelcome in the construction industry and not wanting to be judged for feeling depressed. But opening up, he says, let some light shine through.

CALFORD: The last year of my life has been one of the happiest years I've ever experienced as an adult.

NOGUCHI: That's why he's speaking today, he says, so that anyone suffering might also rediscover hope by talking.

CALFORD: That's all I got to say.


NOGUCHI: As he regains composure, the young man is met with the bear hugs of his fellow construction workers.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Salt Lake City, Utah.


KING: If you are in a crisis or you know someone who is, please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. They're at 1-800-273-8255.


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