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Illinois construction workers at high risk of suicide

September is Suicide Prevention Month. In support of this cause, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a news release about the shockingly high rate of suicide among male construction workers as compared with employees in other industries.

According to OSHA, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data shows that male construction workers have a suicide rate approximately “four times higher than the general population.” The news release quotes the Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor as saying, “Workers in construction face many work-related stressors that may increase their risk factors for suicide, such as the uncertainty of seasonal work, demanding schedules and workplace injuries that are sometimes treated with opioids.”

What about workers’ compensation for construction work-related depression or suicide?

In Illinois, a work-related mental injury like depression can be the basis of a viable workers’ compensation claim in either a “physical-mental” or a “mental-mental” injury.

In 1962, the Illinois Supreme Court held that suicide can be compensable in death benefits for surviving dependents if a work-related physical injury at least partly caused the suicide. In Harper v. Industrial Commission, the court found a “clear connection” between the claimant’s back injury from heavy warehouse work, subsequent surgery, ongoing pain, likely “severe chronic depression” and the suicide. His surviving spouse and child were, therefore, eligible for death benefits.

Common causes of physical injury in construction are falls, electrocution and being hit or crushed by machinery or other objects, among others. So, if a construction worker sustains a serious injury on the job and the injury resulted in anxiety or depression, the psychological injury would also be compensable under a physical-mental theory of recovery (first the physical, then the related mental). And if suicide followed in an “unbroken chain,” a death benefit claim would likely be proper.

In 1976, the Illinois Supreme Court held that a mental-mental claim is compensable if an initial work-related “sudden, severe emotional shock” is followed by related mental disability. In that case, Pathfinder v. Industrial Commission, the court found that the shock of extracting a colleague’s severed hand from a machine that caused a subsequent anxiety reaction supported an award of temporary total disability.

In addition to the initial mental injury being a sudden, disturbing work event, there is some support in Illinois for the first mental injury being a cumulative, gradual injury over time. But ongoing stress or psychological harm must be more than the type that normally happens in a workplace of that type.

This introduces a complicated area of Illinois workers’ compensation, both from a legal and factual point of view. Any construction worker (or employee in any industry) facing work-related depression, anxiety, trauma or other mental harm should speak with an experienced lawyer about a workers’ compensation claim.

(The OSHA news release, linked to above, contains links to resources for suicide and depression prevention for construction companies and employers as well as construction workers.)