Business Manager, Ironworker Local 700
President, Ontario Ironworkers District Council
Ironwork is the pillar of modern infrastructure, but its workers suffer alarmingly common workplace injuries and suicides — a situation made worse by the pandemic. Here’s why leaders in the field say the trade is overdue for a serious conversation about mental health.
The father of all skyscrapers — the Home Insurance Building in Chicago — was built in 1885 following a series of innovations around structural steel. Ten stories high with a steel skeleton frame and reinforced concrete, the building is widely regarded as a major architectural milestone. It was also among the first structures that gave rise to the ironwork trade — a physically, and psychologically, demanding job that’s been among the world’s most dangerous since its inception, despite being the cornerstone of modern infrastructure.
On this year’s National Day of Mourning — which commemorates those whose lives were forever changed or lost due to workplace injury — Canadians pause to recognize the pandemic’s impact on all workers, and especially those in trades as critically important as they are hazardous. Aside from the physical stresses of ironworking, the work takes a psychological toll, and like many trades, it has a historically-embedded culture of silence around mental health.
“Many ironworkers work hundreds of feet in the air and don’t want to be known as nervous or scared, since that might be taken as a sign of weakness,” says Jason Roe, Business Manager at Ironworker Local 700. “The typical ironworker sees themselves as having to be tough and thick-skinned. Don’t deal with your problems or emotions, keep them locked up is a common attitude. But asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness.”
Alarming mental health and substance use statistics among ironworkers
Like many trades, the early history of ironworking was marred by lax safety regulations, poor job site conditions, and many resulting injuries and deaths. Thanks to safety innovations and the work of unions like the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental, and Reinforcing Iron Workers, conditions have improved greatly, but there’s still significant work to be done — especially on the mental health front.
“Currently, we have the highest per capita suicide rate of any construction trade. And the De Novo Treatment Centre in Ontario, which treats substance abuse in workers in all construction trades, has seen demand for its services roughly doubled during the pandemic,” says Kevin Bryenton, President of the Ontario Ironworkers District Council. “That’s in addition to our already high rate of workplace injuries, which tend to be on the chronic side for ironworkers. We’ve lost a lot of people over the years.”
Shifting workplace culture is key for suicide prevention
Bryenton wants to see conversations about mental health normalized among ironworkers. “It’s my goal to get our membership leaders to have an active conversation about the fact that it’s okay to speak about the stresses you have and to seek help,” he says.
Through their member organizations, ironworkers can access a variety of supports. Most local union health and welfare plans offer confidential, no-cost member assistant programs that offer services like 24-hour call lines, short-and long-term disability, counselling, and legal and financial support services, among others. Mental health coverage has increased in recent years — an effort meant to not only bolster institutional supports, but to encourage conversations about mental health in the field. “We’re trying to get people to start talking about mental health with their coworkers, and to let them know it’s okay to reach out for help,” says Roe.
It’s a major culture shift for a trade built on tightlipped grit, but leaders like Roe and Bryenton — both of whom have decades of fieldwork under their belts — are leading the charge. Their overarching message is that strength can take many forms, including the courage to ask for help. Whether you’re an ironworker, in another construction trade, or a worker in any other field — on this year’s National Day of Mourning, make space to talk about mental health and substance abuse in your workplace.
Their overarching message is that strength can take many forms, including the courage to ask for help.