‘THERE’S something going on in construction, and we don’t know where we are in Scotland. To me, that’s just ignoring it.”
For the past few years construction management professor Billy Hare has been analysing how many workers in the industry have taken their own lives in England and Wales and the trend is deeply worrying.
According to data the Glasgow Caledonian University academic has compiled from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the rate of deaths by suicide across the two nations has rocketed from 26 to 34 per 100,000 in the seven years to 2021.
Figures for last year showed constructions workers were nearly four times as likely to end their lives compared with employees in other sectors. There’s every chance this could be an issue in Scotland, but we have absolutely no idea because statistics are not currently published.
Hare – whose research area is almost exclusively on the safety and wellbeing of construction workers – was originally called upon by industry charity the Lighthouse Club to help unearth a picture of how many workers were taking their own lives, given he had done similar work around accidents in the past.
But while Hare has been able to assist the charity in taking a snapshot of the mental health of the industry’s staff south of the border, frustrations around Scotland not publishing figures have continued to grow.
Hare told the Sunday National: “The Lighthouse Club was becoming increasingly frustrated at trying to get some meaningful data on deaths by suicide.
“It’s like the acid test of how well your mental health initiatives are doing over time.
“I had done some analysis on accidents in the past, so it was easy enough for me to use the same methodology.
“The worrying thing is that that the trend for construction – which is predominantly male – has been upwards. It’s only dropped once with this analysis in 2016, which funnily enough coincided with a lot of initiatives being implemented subsequent to reports on this issue.
“Now I don’t want to sound alarmist but plainly something is going on in construction that needs to be addressed.
“The Lighthouse Club has aspirations to get a wider dataset on this issue and report on the whole of the UK and eventually Ireland, but we don’t know where we are in a Scottish context [because no data is published].
“I’m really not trying to beat up Scotland and say ‘let’s compare Scotland to England’. I don’t have an ulterior motive or anything but there’s a problem I’ve identified in the construction industry in England and Wales and I want to know if we’re seeing the same trend in Scotland because otherwise we’re just ignoring it.
“I mean, here’s a guy from Glasgow running all the analysis who can’t even pin down the Scottish data.”
The National Records of Scotland (NRS) has said it has the data but has not yet published it due to the small numbers involved when drilling down to detailed levels of occupation.
But Hare has insisted there should still be ways of garnering reliable data without needing to publish figures on specific job roles.
The ONS publishes suicide numbers by Standard Occupation Code (SOC), with individual roles grouped into larger job families.
And Hare insisted it should be easy enough to replicate this breakdown in Scotland.
He added: “If we look at England and Wales together, the English data dwarfs the Welsh, but we still get it [the Welsh data].
“For statistical reasons we wouldn’t report a rate for Wales, we would just report the absolute numbers at the industry level, and if we had that for Scotland that’s what we would do as well.
“The Scottish dataset would be larger than the Welsh so you could reasonably expect to drill down into these job families because there would be a larger critical mass in order to provide some meaningful data,” added Hare.
Research has shown the reasons behind construction employees choosing to end their lives are often linked to socio-economic issues, with many workers facing financial instability in what Hare describes as a “fragmented” industry with long lines of sub-contracting and projects often overrunning.
The Lighthouse Club, meanwhile, says on its website that stress, depression and anxiety accounts for 27% of all work-related illness in the industry.
Hare said the construction suicide data for England and Wales has been used by the Lighthouse Club to lobby for action and the Health and Safety Executive – which Hare claims has had a “light touch” on mental health in the past – has in the last year been fronting a campaign around mental wellbeing at work.
And he insisted the reluctance in Scotland to publish any data on construction suicides could be stopping meaningful initiatives to support workers from coming to fruition.
“There’s an old adage in management that you can’t manage what you don’t measure,” said Hare.
“A trendline is the starting point for any research you do and any initiatives you take.
“The fact it’s been done in England and Wales has meant it’s been used by the [Lighthouse] charity to lobby for action, and I’m getting together with the charity in January for a national event where we’re going to present what options we have for taking things forward.
“So having the data is a catalyst for all that. It might not be an issue for Scottish construction, but we just don’t know.”
A National Records of Scotland spokesperson said: “We have the data to produce this breakdown, but the reasons we have not done so are partly related to the small numbers involved, but not specifically in relation to identification of individuals.
“We aim to provide an occupation breakdown of suicide deaths in the future, but in order to produce reliable figures, we are likely to combine several years of data together, and we may not be able to publish to the most detailed level of occupation group.”