Let’s say there was a hazard in the workplace that, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics was responsible for more workplace fatalities than electrical exposures, oxygen deficiency, and fires combined – would you want to do something about it? Unfortunately, you probably don’t, because this thing that is suicides, which were responsible for 249 workplace fatal injuries in 2012. Compare that to other hazards that we tend to focus on:
Exposure to electricity – 156
Falls on same level – 120
Fires – 34
Explosions – 88
Struck by falling object – 241
Excavation cave ins – 15
Exposure to temperature extremes – 41
This is not to say that we should not focus on these risks, but it’s just to point out that for a profession that is focused on saving lives we are completely ignoring a significant risk that is killing our workers, not to mention the hundreds of thousands that suffer in silence from various mental illnesses, which have untold costs in terms of lost production and even contribution to other incidents.
May is Mental Health Awareness month in the United States, and we at SCM believe it’s time that safety professionals take seriously the effect mental health has on safety. Some more statistics to consider:
- Since 1992, BLS reports a decrease of 29% in the total number of occupational fatal injuries in the United States. In that same period, the number of suicides in the workplace have increased by 21%.
- Suicides currently represent 5.6% of the total number of occupational fatal injuries, meaning that one out of every 18 fatal injuries in the United States is a suicide. This is an increase from 1992 where suicides only accounted for about one out of every 30 occupational fatal injuries.
- Outside of the workplace, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the US (38,285 people committed suicide in 2011) and kills more people every day than car accidents 34,675 people died in car accidents in 2011).
Despite these facts, most safety professionals do not have suicide prevention or mental health policies. The reasons for this typically stem from the belief that this is a subject for Human Resources or even from the stigmas regarding mental illness. Most safety professionals feel ill-equipped to deal with such a complex issue as suicide. But this is not an excuse to do nothing and just hope that others will do what’s necessary. Mental health is a serious workplace safety issue and burying your head in the sand will not change that.
Some ideas that will get you started on a suicide prevention/mental health policy in your workplace:
- Start the conversation in your workplace about mental illness through workshops and/or training classes that discuss the prevalence of mental illness and how to identify the signs and symptoms. Work to erase the stigma regarding mental illness.
- Create a suicide prevention/mental health policy in your workplace that makes it clear that your organization is committed to preventing employee suicidality and fostering mental health as far as feasible.
- Ensure that anyone who is struggling with mental illness in your organization has a clear and reasonably easy avenue to get help. This can be through an Employee Assistance Program, through your organization’s health insurance policy, and/or ensuring that employees have access to a local suicide prevention hotline.
- Supervisors and managers must be trained in the signs and symptoms of mental illness and suicidality and how to handle these cases, including respecting employee privacy and how to direct those who need help to the right sources.
For more information here’s a link to the Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention site on workplace suicide prevention (http://actionallianceforsuicideprevention.org/task-force/workplace/cspp).