Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Minnesota labor unions work to connect construction workers with mental health care

Construction workers at a building site
Bergerson-Caswell construction workers make progress on a new Carver County building in Waconia, Minn., on Aug. 11. The building will utilize a 3-well geothermal energy system, designed by Darcy Solutions.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Suicide is a leading cause of death among construction workers.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more workers in construction die by suicide than in any industry except mining and oil extraction.

In response, some Minnesota unions are trying to treat mental health like other workplace safety issues. Back in January, the Star Tribune and Minnesota Reformer reported that two labor unions based in Little Canada began offering no-cost counseling and training to members.

This month the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters is trying to connect workers with the help available to them.

MPR News host Cathy Wurzer talked with that union’s Government Affairs Director Adam Duininck and Jennifer Stanek, Medical Director of TEAM Wellness at Work, which provides counseling to all these groups.

If you or a loved one is experiencing a crisis, call or text 988, Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or text MN to 741741.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: Here's a troubling fact. Suicide is a leading cause of death among construction workers. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more workers in construction died by suicide than in any other industry, except mining and oil extraction. Some Minnesota unions are trying to treat mental health like any other workplace safety issue.

Back in January, the Star Tribune and Minnesota Reformer reported that two labor unions based in Little Canada began offering no-cost counseling and training to members. In this month, the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters is trying to connect workers with help available to them.

Adam Duininck is the Union's Director of Government Affairs. Jennifer Stanek is Medical Director of Team Wellness at Work, which provides counseling to all of these groups. Adam, Jennifer, thanks for joining us.

ADAM DUININCK: Thanks for having us, Cathy.


INTERVIEWER: Say Jennifer, I'm going to start with you. I think folks might be really surprised to hear that suicide rates are so high among construction workers. What's going on?

JENNIFER STANEK: Yeah, it's interesting because as we see suicide rates drop in a lot of other industries, we have seen it continue to increase in the trades. We look at things like sleep deprivation, people being away from home, away from their support networks, as well as stress due to finances. We see an increase during layoffs as well. And as commonly in other industries, we see relationship issues still being on the top of that list for reasons of completed suicide.

INTERVIEWER: Adam, I know you've been in the trades for a long time. I wonder how much-- you know, these are individuals who do a lot of, obviously, heavy manual labor at times. Does physical pain maybe substance abuse also play a part in this?

ADAM DUININCK: Yeah, I think that that's something to take a look at and take very seriously. That's one of the multiple issues. Another reason, I think-- I was talking to a friend recently about our industry and what it's like to work in construction. And every day, our members go to work essentially working themselves out of a job. When you complete a project, you hopefully go on to the next project or you go on to another building or site that you're going to work on.

But if you're working for a contractor, you also might be working yourself out of a job. And so that economic uncertainty, that unpredictability about where your next paycheck is coming from can also take a toll. It's both physical, as well as a mental strain on our members and the people that are building the infrastructure for our communities.

INTERVIEWER: Are there financial-- you mentioned kind of financial uncertainties. But I'm wondering, do construction workers, do they get paid time off if they do have an issue?

ADAM DUININCK: That's one thing that is dramatically different from our union than a lot of other unions, is we typically do not have paid time off. That's something that was discussed a little bit at the legislature this spring around earned safe and sick time and paid family medical leave. And I think looking at more of a model where paid time off is an acceptable way to get paid while you take a leave and you need a day for yourself. Part of that is the culture and the history of the trades.

Every project is one and a competitive bid. So a contractor has to think about the economics of that. But the flip side is if you have a workforce that is really in a tough place both mentally and physically, some days as a worker, you need to take that time off. And we want to make sure that members feel comfortable to do so and know that they could come back to their job when they leave it.

INTERVIEWER: Adam mentioned the word "culture" here, Jennifer. And let's face it, construction, mining, those industries-- generally male dominated fields, right? I'm wondering, does somehow gender play into this issue?

JENNIFER STANEK: Absolutely. When you come from a pull-up the bootstraps mentality and where there's a stigma in talking about mental health or any type of substance use issues, it really puts a barrier to people getting access to care. And we do see that more in the male population than in the female population.

INTERVIEWER: Adam, do you want to make a comment about that?

ADAM DUININCK: Yeah, I think Jennifer touched on it well. I think that at some point rather than thinking about it as toughness or whether you can persevere or just kind of push through it, we also have to think about being conscientious of our own health and take care of ourselves, be mindful of your coworkers when they're exhibiting signs of something's going on with them. Make it OK to talk with them.

So one of the things we really want to do is not just make this about mental health, but also shift the focus on safety completely. Once upon a time we weren't taking safety very seriously in construction and unsafe things were happening. People were getting injured.

Then we decided to have Toolbox Talks and safety meetings and touch on safety every week. How can we ingrain that same thinking around mental health safety? Because frankly, it does end up being a safety issue on the job site in the end as well.

INTERVIEWER: So Jennifer, I know Team Wellness at Work has started some on-site counseling programs with a couple of other unions. Is that working OK? How are you measuring the success?

JENNIFER STANEK: Yeah, that's an excellent question. It's working fantastic. Our organization provides services to our clients at no cost, which is great. But if there is not access to that care, it also provides a barrier. So having somebody on-site for people to be able to walk in, have an appointment, or even just sit down for a few minutes to debrief or get resources is a huge asset.

We've seen great success with the painters, for instance, where we have counselors and care coordinators. The carpenters several years ago also committed to having a staff member in their Nebraska Training Center and their Pewaukee Wisconsin Training Center. The way we see utilization increase really shows the success of that model.

INTERVIEWER: So Adam, I'm wondering, this is sounding like these are fairly large construction sites where we're talking about a fairly large number of folks on site doing the work and getting some help. I'm wondering, smaller projects. Is there any help for maybe small to mid-sized contractors, folks who work for them?

ADAM DUININCK: Yeah, absolutely. I think the way to help all contractors and employers is to connect them with the experts. That's one thing we've been trying to do internally on staff. We had a mental health panel that we trained our entire staff on last week. We want to continue to do that with our apprentices and through the apprenticeship program so that way it does reach all of our members.

I think it's important that we engage all the businesses. And that's either through their contractor associations. This is an important labor management issue where we want to talk to our members about it, but there's a lot of employers doing really important cutting edge work here on this front too. There's a contractor, Aaron Benicki, from Rochester, that spoke on our panel.

That some of these employers are already working on this. How can we scale that to the smaller contractors? I think that's important for us to talk about as an organization, get materials into the hands and get resources into the hands of either their foremen or superintendents that are running their jobs.

INTERVIEWER: So final question for both of you, because I know there are probably some family members listening who have a loved one in the trades. What's your message to them, to folks who feel like they may need some help or if someone's worried about someone they know? I'll begin with Jennifer.

JENNIFER STANEK: Yeah, and I think just initiating the conversation is what's important. Especially when you know somebody, to recognize those symptoms of them not doing OK, whether it's behavior, them just even being interested in their normal activities. But normalizing that conversation allows us to get people help early on. The earlier we get engagement and get people help, the more we can impact that suicide rate.


ADAM DUININCK: Yeah, check in on your loved ones. It's as simple as that. I think the people that you work with, your friends and your family, ask them how they're doing and be an active listener. And pay attention to those cues. I think Jennifer hit it right on. It just needs to come down to getting ahead of things quicker rather than responding, because it's often too late.

Some of the tragedies that we've heard about, we hear about after the fact. We talk to members who have to go on the job site and learn that somebody didn't show up that day. And so the quicker that we can identify the symptoms, the quicker that we can respond and be there for our brothers and sisters.

INTERVIEWER: I appreciate the conversation here today. Thank you so much, and for your work.


ADAM DUININCK: Thank you, Cathy.

INTERVIEWER: Adam Duininck is Director of Government Affairs for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters. Jennifer Stanek is Medical Director of Team Wellness at Work.

Now again, if you or a loved one is experiencing a crisis, you can call or text 988. That's the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Or text MN to 741741.

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