The Other Pandemic: Part 1

Suicide Hits Record Levels in Roofing, Building Industries

Amy R. Connolly, Writer
Reading Time: 3 minutes
Share Now:

Construction workers — including roofers — understand the perils of physical labor. After all, muscle sprains, back injuries and skin lacerations are almost commonplace in the roofing community. But what they’re not prepared for is the trauma that sometimes comes with crippling depression, overwhelming anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

Construction workers — more specifically, men in the construction field — face a suicide rate that is four times higher than the U.S. average and five times greater than all construction fatalities combined, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found. In the United States alone, more male construction workers and roofers die from suicide per day than from all of OSHA’s fatal four construction hazards — falls, electrocution, struck-bys and caught-betweens — combined.

In fact, construction workers worldwide – from skilled laborers to management –face staggering suicide rates. Of all groups of construction workers, roofers face a higher death rate due to suicide.

Ryan GelatkaRyan Gelatka

For Rick Gelatka, Atlas Roofing’s director of marketing operations, suicide awareness has hit close to home. Gelatka’s 41-year-old son Ryan died as a result of suicide in August 2020. Gelatka said he hopes the roofing community, as well as others, addresses suicide before one more person dies.

“Roofers and others in the construction field tend to work hard and play hard,” Gelatka said. “If they don't address the play hard, the casualties are their families.”

Mental health and industry experts are taking notice. In an industry known for its machismo workplace culture, conversations about mental health and emotional wellness are creeping in. Efforts are underway to throw lifelines to the building workforce.

Medical professionals and researchers have been working to uncover the reasons behind the suicides. While personal circumstances play a significant role in all suicides, there are also prevailing factors for construction workers in particular.

The Whys Behind Construction Worker Suicides

According to the most recent data available, the suicide rate among men in the construction industry was 49.4 individuals per 100,000 people. In the roofing industry, the suicide rate was even higher — at 65.2 per 100,000. The CDC found all levels of the construction workforce are at increased risk for suicide.

Some of the primary reasons are strictly based on demographics. In general, the building sector comprises, on average, Caucasian men aged 25 to 54, who are statistically more inclined to take their own lives compared to other population groups. Also, many construction workers are veterans — a community known for high suicide rates.

But the reasons behind construction worker suicides includes other factors, including:

  • Self-destructive behaviors
    The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that construction-work culture accepts reckless behaviors such as binge drinking, tobacco use and drug abuse, including opioid addiction.
  • Disregard for self-care
    Construction workers face a multitude of physical ailments, such as chronic pain, musculoskeletal disorders and sleep deficiencies, but often do not seek medical attention.
  • Poor leadership
    In the past, companies have been guilty of promoting a tough-guy culture with dangerous work conditions and stressful deadlines but frowning on workers who express concern with the situation.

Other issues as well — financial worries due to inconsistent seasonal work, COVID-19-related shutdowns, a nonexistent work-life balance and the transient nature of the profession — only add to stress, anxiety and depression.

For Rick Gelatka’s son Ryan, depression was likely a contributing factor to his death.

Click here to read more of Gelatka’s personal story, as well as learn some of the signs to look out for and suicide prevention tips.