05 October 2017

Safeguarding construction workers’ physical and mental wellbeing

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Construction workers have higher injury and suicide rates than other hazardous industry sectors, and both are under-reported. We’ve done something about this.

First, an overview of what’s happening in male-dominated industries like construction.

Australian workplace fatalities in high risk industries are at unacceptable rates:

  • Safe Work Australia reports that 120 worker deaths were recorded for the first nine months of 2017 alone, and construction is the 3rd highest industry at risk, after the agriculture and transport industries.
  • MATES in Construction reports that construction workers are six times more likely to die by suicide than workplace accidents, and apprentices are two and a half times more likely to suicide than other young men their age.

The latest research from BMC Public Health suggests that there are interrelated work and non-work pressures prior to suicide, including:

  • mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and burnout,
  • transient working experiences (i.e., the inability to obtain steady employment),
  • workplace injury and chronic illness,
  • work colleagues as a source of social support,
  • financial and legal problems,
  • relationship breakdown, and child custody issues, and 
  • substance abuse.

While Safe Work Australia reports that construction is in the top three industry for workplace fatalities, the truth could be much worse because workplace injuries are under-reported. This includes bodily harm as well as stress, anxiety and depression, which may precede suicide. 

Completing the research trifecta, the Konekt Market Report 2017 suggests that prevailing job insecurity has discouraged timely reporting of workplace injuries: more than six months lapses on average between injury and referral.

I agree with the report that “nobody benefits from the current situation of delay – not employers, injured workers, regulators, or insurers.”

  • Workers are afraid to report injuries as they may lose their jobs, but the longer they do not report injuries, the less likely they will receive timely intervention and be able to continue working at their best capacity.
  • Employers thus suffer from a loss of business productivity, which ripples into a reduced capacity to deliver quality, higher workers’ compensation premiums, lost sales, lower staff morale, higher staff turnover, and other business-critical concerns. 
  • Regulators lose out when workplace injury statistics continue to see little improvement as their goal is to have workers return home safe and sound. Workplace fatalities or serious injuries require investigation and prosecution. 
  • Insurers lose out because it costs to rehabilitate and/or compensate injured workers.

The key to quicker rehabilitation after a workplace injury is early referral and management.

  • Any delay in reporting physical and psychological injuries has significant impact on timely and effective recovery, however 56% of workers (especially men) feel if they report mistakes they make at work, it will be held against them.
  • Delays in reporting injuries can lead to additional psychosocial harm brought on by the fear of job loss and financial strain. 
  • The stigma associated with mental illness is very real and this needs to be addressed.

We have a growing issue in the workplace and some serious work to do to break down these barriers. 

What can be done to safeguard construction workers’ physical and mental wellbeing?

A systematic approach is needed. 

To ensure employees are safe, mindful and on-task, organisations can exercise their duty of care in several ways.

Concurring with recommendations from Konekt (a leading rehabilitation services provider) and Nahrgang et al (2010)’s peer-reviewed research (Safety at Work: A Meta-Analytic Investigation of the Link Between Job Demands, Job Resources, Burnout, Engagement, and Safety Outcomes) I suggest the following actions:

  • Encourage earlier referrals, and address contributing factors like organisational culture;
  • Step up workplace risk assessment, recognise psychological harm, provide supportive interventions, and re-think job demands and their impact;
  • Support employees with engaged and relevant safety training; and
  • Provide positive safety environments where there are no repercussions for speaking out and speaking up.

I’ve made it my business to make these things happen in real workplaces by introducing two Tap into Safety solutions: Hazard Insight and All of Me. This software has been developed out of 20 years of in-field consultation and rigorous research at Edith Cowan University.

Tap into Safety helps to keep workers physically and mentally safe, and here are some outcomes organisations using our programs have achieved:

  • 150% increase in hazard reporting
  • 100% increase in help-seeking activities
  • 75% reduction in equipment damage
  • More than 10% reduction in workplace injuries

How do our workplace physical and mental wellbeing programs work?

Hazard Insight is hazard perception training for the workplace. The software immerses workers in customised, panoramic visual scenarios of your actual work environments. A comprehensive gap analysis is provided to show evidence of retained safety knowledge.

All of Me addresses the rising problems related to mental wellbeing. It is an early intervention and preventative online solution that provides insights into staff stress, anxiety and depression levels, and clearly show which staff groups need the most support and help.

With these solutions in place, organisations can manage and support each employee better, armed with a better understanding of their physical and mental fitness for work.

Furthermore, if such risk profiles can be used to guide follow-up employee training, track progress and record milestones, organisations would possess a meticulous extended system for taking care of their employees’ physical and mental wellbeing.

In this regard, Tap into Safety is excited to be collaborating with Velpic and other like-minded innovators to expedite, automate and streamline the entire process of safeguarding every construction worker’s physical and mental wellbeing.

For example, our integration with Velpic means that a worker's risk profile generated from Hazard Insight or All of Me can provide guidelines for an individualised and systematic training roadmap managed seamlessly through Velpic.

Watch both our introductory videos on the Velpic Construction page, which also tells you more about how you could leverage our novel integrated solution.

Businesses of all sizes can benefit, as the Velpic integration provides both bespoke and off-the-shelf interactive training content that embeds learning successfully to influence safety behaviours.

Show me Velpic Construction

About Dr Susanne Bahn. Dr Bahn is globally recognised as an expert in hazard perception research. Her expertise focuses on strategies to improve hazard awareness skills, and address risk blindness and safety induction deafness, in workers in hazardous work environments. She is the author of two books and over 50 journal articles published in Australian and international journals.