Bechtel will spend $7 million over the next five years to kick off a partnership with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention that both say is geared specifically for the construction industry. 

The contribution will fund an initiative to develop industry-specific programming, training and materials to reach 500,000 construction workers over the next five years, the contractor and foundation announced March 5 in Washington, D.C., saying the pledge from the Bechtel Group Foundation is the largest contribution from a single organization to the group in its history.  

A working group tasked to identify best practices and how best to proceed met for the first time after a panel discussion of industry, mental health advocates and union leaders.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control, construction is second only to mining in terms of suicide rates. “That’s a shameful statistic and we will not rest until we change it,” said Brendan Bechtel, chairman and CEO of Bechtel. 

He said that just as the industry has reduced injury incident rates after making safety a priority, it can reduce worker suicides. On all Bechtel projects, the firm now trains project team leaders and “voluntary first responders” to provide mental health education and training to workers in addition to now-standard safety instruction.

“All of us who work in construction have seen gains in physical safety that were once unimaginable, become the standard for success," said Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU). "It’s time to bring the same mindset, resources and innovation to the issue of mental health and suicide prevention.” He said the building trades plan to announce a new program related to “psychological safety” at its upcoming legislative conference in late April.   

Suicide prevention programs have existed in the construction industry for decades. But according to Robert Gebbia, the suicide prevention group's CEO, efforts have been fragmented thus far. 

“This is an industry-wide initiative. We’ve worked piecemeal with different groups … but nothing ever like this that’s so industry-wide and sustainable over a long period,” he said, adding that suicide prevention efforts cannot be “one and done. They must be sustainable … and change the culture you’re working within.” 

Building on Existing Knowledge

The initiative hopes to follow examples established by programs already experiencing some success in reducing suicide rates. Those include programs in the U.S. Air Force, and a construction-specific program in the U.K., Mates in Mind. Since being established in 2017, the latter has attracted more than 700 supporter organizations, some of which have seen declines in stress-related absences and increased employee retention rates in their workforces, according to the organization’s website. 

Bechtel invited other groups and firms to get involved with the initiative. “There’s no proprietary, Bechtel-specific way to promote mental health," he said. “We are trying to build the biggest tent that we can because everybody wins if we get even a little better at this." 

The new investments of funds is “a huge testament to the momentum of the construction mental health movement.” said Sally Spencer-Thomas, co-chair of the Construction Working Minds Summit and a 2021 ENR Newsmaker. More than 450 people attended the summit this year, held Feb. 24-26 in Kansas City, Mo. 

At that event, attendees shared personal stories related to mental health struggles and how to use them to help others. Summit leaders also released a white paper highlighting progress and next steps to improve mental health in construction

“Many are looking forward to the collaborations and continued advancement of the impact that will hopefully result,” Spencer-Thomas said.