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  • Writer's pictureSpecial to the Kansas Reflector

Opinion: On Labor Day and every day, construction industry’s worst hazards deserve attention

Updated: Sep 8

Natalie Bell of Columbus, Ohio, works on a construction project. (Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)

By Todd Underwood, Special to the Kansas Reflector

While most of the people in the United States have cookouts on their minds this Labor Day, the construction industry remains one of the nation’s most hazardous, especially for the nearly 1,000 people who die after suffering workplace injuries each year. They account for nearly one in five workplace deaths annually in the U.S. each year.

In Kansas, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration conducted nearly 500 construction industry inspections between October 2021 and July 2023 — nine of them were fatality investigations — and proposed $4.6 million in penalties for employers who violated workplace safety rules.

One-third of the job-related deaths in the nation happen in the construction industry, and at least one-third of them are the result of falls, slips or trips. Despite these findings, fall protection in construction remains the standard most frequently cited by OSHA, the federal agency that enforces workplace safety regulations.

Falls from elevation may be the leading cause of construction industry deaths, but they are preventable when employers provide — and require workers to use — fall arrest systems every time an employee steps onto a roof or works at heights greater than 6 feet.

Suicide is a serious hazard that may not be viewed as falling in the traditional occupational safety and health space, but it has very real work-related implications. The construction industry is disproportionately affected by suicides. In fact, the rate of suicides is 3½ times higher among construction workers than it is among the general population.

In September, the U.S. observes National Suicide Prevention Month. This important designation raises awareness of the ignore dangers to mental health and of the construction industry’s work in helping employers and their workers understand the stresses industry workers face, how these concerns provoke deadly thoughts or suicide attempts and what

must be done to save lives.

In 2023, the Kansas Construction Safety Network, Associated General Contractors of Kansas and Kansas Department of Labor Division of Industrial Safety and Health will again join OSHA as participants in Construction Suicide Prevention Week, today through Friday. The event urges employers to pause work and set aside time to inform and share useful resources with and urge them to seek mental health care if needed.

In 2022, about 250,000 workers in 47 states registered to participate in the event.

Like all workplace hazards, suicide can be avoided when employers and employees are informed and encouraged to take precautions. OSHA urges employers, industry associations, labor organizations and workers to understand the problem and the warning signs of depression and to seek help, which includes the national 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, available 24 hours a day.

To help those needing mental health care, the department has been aggressively working — at the direction of the Biden-Harris administration — to make sure people have the same access to mental health and substance use disorder care as they do for treatment for medical and surgical conditions. In July 2023, the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services proposed rules to further protect workers’ rights to mental health treatment.

As we remember the importance of workers this Labor Day, we should also keep in mind the hazards faced by the people who make so much of what we need and enjoy possible. If you see workers at risk or know of someone in the construction industry who is struggling with life’s demands, tell someone who can help. Taking preventive steps is an important way to save lives.

Todd Underwood is the Wichita Area Director for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

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