It’s National Suicide Prevention Week here in the US Suicide is not something commonly discussed, for many reasons. However, many people would be shocked to know just how often people commit suicide in the United States (and in other countries). In the US, in 2010, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death for the whole population. It is the second leading cause of death for those ages 25-34. Around 105 people commit suicide every day in the US. Suicide kills more people every day than car accidents and the average person is more likely to kill themselves than they are to be killed by another person (homicide kills about half as many people as suicides do).
These statistics are sad and shocking, but what does this have to do with the workplace? According to the latest data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, suicides caused 225 workplace fatalities in the US, accounting for 5% of all workplace fatal injuries. Suicides killed more people at work than confined spaces, fires and explosions, exposure to electricity, heat stress, falls on the same level, or “caught in” fatalities (such as trench collapses). Each of these other causes of occupational death receives significant attention by the occupational safety and health community but suicide is virtually ignored even though it’s killing more people.
There are many reasons for this, such as cultural stigmas related to mental illness or the belief that suicide is a Human Resources problem. Some people are just overwhelmed by the complexity of suicidal behaviors and choose to stay at a distance. The bottom line though is that people are dying and it’s the job of the safety professional to make sure that doesn’t happen on our watch. We have an important role to play in developing occupational health and safety management systems that protect our employees from all hazards, including internal ones.
Many assume that the company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) should be able to take care of that. And yes, an EAP has an important role to play in suicide prevention. However, simply putting an EAP in place and assuming that will solve the problem is not good enough. The problem with EAPs is that they rely on the person who is at-risk for suicide to seek help on their own at the exact moment when that person may feel the most hopeless and beyond help. Instead, EAPs must be part of a suicide prevention program where employees are trained to be aware of the risk factors of suicide and what to do when they identify those risk factors in a fellow employee or themselves. Supervisors and managers should receive additional training on how to manage situations where someone is identified as at risk, as well as how to ensure a safe environment for all employees without bullying or harassment. All employees should be made familiar with the EAP process during training. If possible, having a representative from the EAP to put a face on the program will help.
Other elements may be necessary, depending on your specific organization. However, the safety profession cannot simply put our head in the sand and pretend there isn’t a problem when we have a responsibility to protect others.
Here’s some links for more information about suicide prevention: