A mental health crisis

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Tanya Blake, SAS editor. Credit: IHS Markit

Causes of UK construction worker suicide rates mirrors that of seafarers, but industry and public responses differ

In August, news broke of a surge in suicide attempts by construction workers at Hinkley Point nuclear power station, one of Britain’s biggest construction projects since the Second World War. The Guardian investigation revealed that there had been 10 suicide attempts in the first four months of 2019, with more workers off sick with stress, anxiety, and depression than previous years, as well as a rise in workers reporting mental distress. The decade-long project employs more than 4,000 workers on the construction site. Since work began in 2016, two employees have taken their own lives.

It is easy to draw parallels to the maritime industry. The main reason cited for this rash of suicide attempts was loneliness, caused by isolation from family and friends, with some workers often finding themselves hundreds of miles from their homes and support networks. This is the norm for crew, and the toll this takes on seafarers’ mental health is something that is now more openly discussed as an industry.

Furthermore, a macho culture was also cited as a causal factor, with the Hinkley Point construction workers feeling they should ‘man up’ to overcome their problems, not to mention the unusual shift patterns and long working hours; all seafarers are familiar with the unique challenges these issues bring.

However, while the serious problems being faced by Hinkley construction workers made national news, it is rare to see stories about seafarer mental health or suicide rates outside of maritime publications. Much of this is down to a lack of data on the topic. The construction industry is often cited as having the highest suicide rates compared with any other industry. According to the UK’s Office of National Statistics there were 1,409 suicides recorded for workers in the construction or building industry, compared with the second highest of 1,002 in administration or services roles, and the third highest of 942 in skilled electrical or electronic roles.

Global, industry-wide data on crew suicides is scant but we know the rates are high – potentially even higher than construction. The UK P&I Club data released in 2017 revealed that rates have more than tripled from 4.4% in 2014 to 15.3%, according to its internal claims system. While the reasons for the rise are hard to determine, recent research commissioned by the International Transport Workers Federation Seafarers’ Trust and conducted by Yale University surveyed 1,572 seafarers around the globe revealed similarly high figures. Please see overleaf for the full breakdown of the results of this survey. Further comprehensive studies are needed to reveal the true scale of the issue on crew suicide. It is important to note that the man overboard incidents are often suspected to be crew suicides and would drastically raise the figures.

Knowing the true scale of the problem we face as an industry will force us to tackle it head on. Let us learn from the reactions to the Hinkley Point suicides. The Guardian called it a mental health crisis and it is one shipping is facing too.
EDF, the French energy company behind Hinkley Point C, together with workers union Unite, has enacted urgent measures. A wide-scale mental health programme has been implemented, from medical staff trained in mental health care and ‘buddy’ training for workers to awareness campaigns and high-profile speakers on mental health to reduce the stigma around talking about their own problems. EDF intends to use its current work to change practices in the wider construction industry.

There are positive steps being made in maritime on crew wellbeing and a growing range of training resources and support networks are available for seafarers. During London International Shipping Week, Dr Grahaeme Henderson, Shell’s vice-president of shipping and maritime, discussed the intrinsic link between crew wellbeing and safety incidents. By looking after one we will reduce the other. Henderson also announced Shell’s work to combine high impact low frequency (HiLo) with its seafarer’s wellbeing research to create a human error model.

As he said, we must better understand crew wellbeing and then make proactive interventions to address their needs and make improvements. It is our duty as an industry to do so.