The construction industry: Facing a mental health crisis
Data collected by the Office for National Statistics has shown that more than 2,000 construction workers took their own lives in 2017. Other findings from a study conducted by the Glasgow Caledonian University show that the problem is getting worse. From 2017 to 2019, the number of suicides per 100,000 rose from 26 to 29, with people in the construction industry three times more likely to take their own lives in 2019 compared to other industries.
Why is the construction industry experiencing a rise in mental health conditions?
Bill Hill, Chief Executive of the mental health charity Lighthouse Club, says that one reason for the rise in mental health conditions is due to financial pressure. He said that it is a “huge factor” in construction, “causing stress, depression, and anxiety”. He added that several self-employed workers are “brilliant tradespeople but don’t have the education”, which may be helpful in running their business.
“They win a project, someone pays them a big invoice but they don’t put money aside for VAT [and then] the taxman asks for payment so they get finance. It tumbles from there. Sole trader-style business management should be taught at apprenticeship level”, Hill said.
According to Lighthouse Club, the industry is “hugely fragmented” and “difficult to reach over half of the 2.8mn self-employed construction workers. “Some larger companies have done a fantastic job on mental health”, Hill says. “But only apply their programmes and workshops to their own staff. Until you get to the huge mass of very capable tradespeople who are getting no input, one of the biggest problems is awareness”.
How can awareness of mental health be improved in the construction industry?
Chief Executive of the Construction Industry Council, Graham Watts, says that the industry has made positive steps forward on mental wellbeing but that “it is still not doing nearly enough” to support staff in this area.
Looking at how awareness of mental health can be improved in the industry today, Watts said: “Today, I would hope it is easier to be more open about mental health. I’m impressed by the leadership that is being shown by some companies – for example, Tideway, where Chief Executive Andy Mitchell has ‘mental health first aider’ immediately after his email sign-off – but it is still only being exhibited by the best of the best”.
Lighthouse club has also launched a campaign for construction workers to raise more awareness of mental health in the industry. Named “Help Inside the Hard Hat”, the campaign makes all workers aware of the services that Lighthouse Club offers, “regardless of employment status”, the charity says. Lighthouse Club is taking particular care to encourage contractors to put up posters on sites and ensure that they reach all workers, including the self-employed.
The charity also has a free app that allows workers to access mental health information and resources. Lighthouse Club is also improving the availability of information by working with partners such as the Safer Highways charity and Glasgow Caledonian University. But the charity is working on improving the understanding and destigmatisation of mental health in the industry one step at a time. Hill said: “The first thing is suicides,” says Hill. “That is the number one benchmark of all the work we are doing – are we reducing suicides in the industry?”.
If you are a construction worker - or someone you know is and you need support, you can call the Lighthouse Club helpline on 0345 605 1956.
University of Dresden constructs carbon concrete building
The Technical University of Dresden, in partnership with German architecture firm Henn, is constructing the first building to be made out of concrete and carbon fibre, rather than traditional steel.
The combination of materials, known as, “carbon concrete” has the same structural strength as its steel-reinforced alternative but less concrete is used, according to researchers at the university.
The building, called “The Cube” is currently under construction at the University of Dresden’s campus in Germany, and is believed to be the first carbon concrete building in the world. Strengthening the concrete, the carbon fibre yarns are used to create a mesh into which the concrete is then poured.
Unlike steel, the mesh is rust-proof meaning that the lifespan of carbon concrete is longer than that of the more typical steel-reinforced concrete. This also allows the layers to be much thinner than steel.
The design and shape of The Cube
According to the companies, the flexibility of carbon fibre allows the walls to fold up and become a roof. In a statement talking about the building’s design elements, Hen said: “The design of The Cube reinterprets the fluid, textile nature of carbon fibres by seamlessly merging the ceiling and walls in a single form, suggesting a future architecture in which environmentally conscious design is paired with formal freedom and a radical rethinking of essential architectural elements.
"The wall and ceiling are no longer separate components but functionally merge into one another as an organic continuum.” Displayed as a showpiece for TU Dresden’s major project, backed by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, The Cube aims to explore the potential uses of carbon concrete in construction.
"Carbon concrete could contribute to more flexible and resource-saving construction processes, and switching to carbon concrete could reduce the CO2 emissions from construction by up to 50%," Henn said in a statement.
Bio-based carbon fibre under development to reduce carbon footprint
While carbon fibre may be lighter and stronger than steel, it has a much higher carbon footprint. Describing the material’s impact on the environment, Dr Erik Frank, Senior Carbon Scientist at the German Institute of Textile and Fibre Research Denkendorf (DITF), said it is “usually very bad.” To reduce the carbon footprint, Frank is finding ways to make carbon fibre out of lignin, a common plant-based substance found in the paper manufacturing industry.