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The human cost of construction is still too high

Rhiann Storey

“At what cost?”

As a quantity surveyor, this is a question I get asked a lot. But I believe it’s a question that all of us working in the industry need to ask ourselves.

Our industry is typically adversarial. Working in the disputes world as I do, tensions are easy to spot, although by the time I see them after escalation to a more formal or legal approach, they are usually somewhat sanitised.

But construction sites are hectic. There is always something happening, problems that need resolving and deadlines to meet. There are disagreements and, when things go wrong, often arguments. Many of us are a step removed from this argy-bargy. Conditions in offices bear few similarities with an onsite environment.

Sites have always been dangerous places to work. While physical danger has been declining with the increase in awareness, risk assessments and prevention strategies, construction work is still dangerous.

Accidents do still happen and when they do, can have profound effects on everyone on site, not just for the people involved in the accident. Over time, the physical risk may have reduced, but the dangers for mental health seem to be greater than ever – or perhaps we are beginning to be more aware of it now.

What support is there for people actually carrying out the work on sites if they need it?

Perhaps the electrician wiring the lighting runs is having a hard time at home and has no one to talk to. Perhaps the roofer is worried when he will get paid next after this job is finished. Perhaps the stress of things like this leads to an accident. 

The human cost

The construction industry is a risky place to work, but it’s also exciting. It creates and innovates, provides rewarding careers, puts roofs over our heads and it pays our bills – but at what cost?

Two construction workers take their own lives every working day in the UK.

That is more than 400 people every year, according to our 2017 impact report. The risk for this sector is also heightened by the fact that men, who make up the majority of the construction workforce, are more likely to take their own life, as recorded by the ONS.

I count myself lucky that I have not lost any of my loved ones to suicide. Unfortunately, my loved ones cannot say the same. It is an issue that touches us all.

I was profoundly shocked when I discovered a foreman on a large project I worked on had battled with depression and had attempted suicide during the time I had been working with him. I found out a few years later when he was brave enough to tell a room full of people about his experience to raise awareness of suicide. His honesty, strength and bravery continue to inspire me.

It is not just our industry facing this issue. Suicide has become so prevalent in our society that the UK government has recently appointed a minister for suicide prevention.

What can be done?

For several years I have been involved with the Lighthouse Club Charity, founded in the UK in 1956 to help construction workers in crisis. It is a global charity and operates in more than 12 countries.

The charity provides a vital lifeline to those working in our industry, whether it’s financial or emotional support or guidance on tax and legal issues. Its 24/7 Construction Industry Helpline provides a free employee assistance programme for anyone seeking support in the construction industry.

Last year, Lighthouse supported 1,524 families and spent £736,625 on charitable services. This year, it expects to support 2,000 families and spend £1.3m on charitable services.

I love this industry. It creates wonderful things: architectural wonders, feats of engineering, essential infrastructure and much more. But if the cost of this is a negative impact on mental health and potentially suicide, then something needs to change, and fast.

Rhiann Storey is chair of the Midlands Lighthouse Club and an associate director at HKA

Readers' comments (1)

  • Rhiann’s article sums up perfectly the challenge the industry faces in changing its culture. The suicide rate in our industry is over twice the national average. The Lighthouse Club can help people deal with the fallout from mental health illness and it runs mental health trainer programmes to put in place a support system network. It can’t do this without the Industry’s help. Cormac Mac Crann Chairman Lighthouse Club.

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