Readers of this blog know that serious physical injuries from falls are a major cause of injures among construction workers. Other common causes of injury include equipment failure, being hit by swinging booms and falling building materials, and being buried in shoring accidents. We seldom write about the non-physical injuries suffered by construction workers. However, a study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and published in 2013 revealed that construction workers also suffer from a variety of job-related mental and emotional illnesses that increase their risk of physical injury.
The study found that depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts are related to the high pain levels suffered by construction workers, especially older workers who have been on the job for many years. Earlier studies revealed that at least 40 percent of construction workers over age 50 suffered from chronic back pain. Injured workers of any age are more likely to be depressed than healthy workers. Construction workers appear to have higher suicide rates as well.
Depression and anxiety are often accompanied by mental impairments that include problems with concentration and memory. When distracted, workers are less likely to remember to follow safety practices. The Harvard study found that workers experiencing mental and emotional stress are unlikely to get help for their problems, either because they fear being stigmatized or losing their jobs. Another deterrent to seeking help may be lack of access to affordable treatment options.
Given the connection between pain and mental stress, it is not surprising that construction workers experience anxiety and depression. In the Harvard study, 75 percent of workers in the study reported musculoskeletal pain in the three months before the study; 42 percent reported work injuries in the month before the study; 16 percent of workers reported mental or emotional distress. In a follow-up, it turned out that only 41 percent of the 16 percent of workers who reported mental distress had sought professional help for their condition.
The connection between pain, mental distress and work injuries among construction workers needs further study. The ultimate goal is to improve workplace safety and prevent construction accidents with a greater understanding of this linkage.