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PileDriver Magazine: A Relentless Ally
October 26, 2020
by Nick Mistretta
Steven Frost is Championing Suicide Prevention and Better Mental Health for Construction Workers in Portland
Steven Frost, the safety, health, and environmental manager at Balfour Beatty’s Portland office, has taken up a new cause. And it’s a cause that is long overdue.
When Frost stepped into his current role at Balfour Beatty – a large infrastructure group that operates around the world and long-standing contractor member of PDCA – he expected to hand out Band-Aids and address job site safety concerns. What he didn’t realize at the time, was just how much his position would evolve.
Frost recently won the ASSP Columbus Willamette’s President’s Award for his efforts in leading a new program in the Portland office called Need to Talk, which addresses suicide prevention and better mental health for construction workers.
However, Frost will be the first to tell you that he’s not a therapist. He’s simply a liaison.
“By no means do I try to solve their problems or do any type of counseling,” said Frost. “I’m just there to encourage them to start the conversation, let them know I’m available to listen and direct them to people who can help them.”
A Great Program that Addresses a Great Need
Suicide prevention and mental health are gaining acceptance in the national discourse. Once taboo, it’s become normal to talk about these issues now. And for construction workers, who experience a much higher rate of suicide, the need for programs like Need to Talk is great.
“There are a lot of stressors for everyone,” said Frost. “But when it comes to construction workers, there are a whole other set of factors, like scheduling pressures, major skills gaps, sleep problems and injuries that can contribute to a higher than average suicide rate.”
Frost also mentioned isolation as a driving factor. Construction workers are often away from their family and friends for extended periods, not to mention their normal routines. Routines that often keep people grounded and contribute to better mental health.
The Need to Talk program, which originated in Balfour Beatty’s Seattle office and which Frost implemented in Portland in 2019, addresses mental health and suicide prevention immediately with newly hired employees during orientation. Frost and his team let new workers know that resources are available if they ever need them.
“I give out stickers to every worker,” said Frost. “The stickers go inside their hard hats and include information beyond the normal job site address and superintendent phone numbers. Every sticker includes mental health resources, my phone number, and the See Something, Say Something slogan.”
Frost lets everyone know that the door to his office is always open and he’s available 24/7. He and some of his team members have been trained to help and can easily be spotted by the visual indicators on their hard hats.
“Workers always know who they can approach to talk to,” said Frost. “It’s as simple as tapping one of us on the shoulder and saying, ‘Hey, I need to talk about something.’ It’s amazing how many people during orientation hang back and tell me they could use some help. And it doesn’t have to be a critical conversation; we’re just providing resources.”
The training Frost and has undergone is known as QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer). Developed by QPR Institute, Question, Persuade, Refer is a training program that teaches people how to detect, intervene with, and manage someone at risk for suicide.
“I wanted to be the best resource I could be for the employees,” said Frost. “QPR training is about being a bridge for people to the resources they need. It’s important to let them know, ‘If you’re going through something, there’s someone at work you can talk to.’”
Frost’s mental health awareness campaign goes well beyond stickers. It’s impossible not to notice suicide prevention resources on his job sites. From banners to Need to Talk logos to crisis hotline phone numbers, everywhere workers turn, they’re exposed to vital mental health resources.
The Spark that Ignited a Cause
Frost has been the Safety, Health, and Environmental Manager at Balfour Beatty’s Portland office since 2017. Initially, he provided the usual safety resources to work sites and conducted training and field audits. His focus was on general contractor safety until a company-wide email circulated a few years ago.
“In 2016, the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) released a report that put construction at the top of the list for industries with high suicide rates,” said Frost. “So, our Vice President sent out an email during Suicide Awareness Month (in September) that highlighted that. I felt like it was something that needed to be discussed more frequently, so I made it my job to help introduce it into our culture.”
Frost decided to make mental health awareness and suicide prevention a part of the Portland office’s Safety Week program that he termed ‘Wellness Week’. Along with the usual information on water, fiber, protein, rest, and heart health, employees also got information that went well beyond their physical health needs.
“I got an immediate response from people in the crowd, so I decided to research it further,” said Frost. “It turned out that our Seattle office had a Need to Talk, Talk to Me pilot program. So, I asked to be a champion for the Portland office.”
Current ASSP Columbus Willamette’s President Mark Frisco came into the position after Frost was selected as the President Award winner, but Frisco knows Frost well.
“Steven has shown himself as a fervent leader in the area of mental health within the construction industry,” said Frisco. “Like many male-dominated industries, construction hasn’t been a natural place you’d find people opening up. Instead, it is more likely an industry where you would keep your feelings to yourself in fear that it would otherwise reveal your weaknesses. Steven has been instrumental at bringing attention to these opposing viewpoints.”
A Replicable Model of Mental Health Success
For others interested in starting their own suicide prevention and mental health awareness program, Frost said the keys are taking your time and doing your research.
“There’s almost too much information out there,” said Frost. “It’s important to find the right resources for your organization and to make sure it’s effective before ramping it up. If you roll out your new program too quickly, it can lose its traction, its focus, and even its message.”
If someone cuts themselves on the job site and needs first aid, they go to Frost. If they’re missing a toe board, which is a safety hazard, they go to Frost. Frost said we need to get to the point where we treat mental health and suicide prevention like any other safety hazard or health issue.
“The Need to Talk program was created in Seattle,” said Frost. “I brought it to Portland and it’s only been about a year, but I’m willing to share it with whoever wants to learn about it. I’d like to take it further.”
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