DENVER, Colo. – According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, construction has the highest suicide rates of all occupations, but RK – a construction and manufacturing service business – has become a national model for mental health wellness on the job.
Every morning, the workers at RK circle up for their “toolbox talk.” It's a time where they stretch and they speak freely about mental health and safety issues.
The practice started in 2014 after an incident that shook everyone at the company.
“We had one of our employees that worked in our shops. And at the end of his shift he walked around and handed out all his tools,” RK Co-owner Jon Kinning said. “By the time we figured it out that he was contemplating suicide potentially, I think we went to his house and he had already taken his life.”
Alongside industry leaders and suicide experts, Kinning helped develop the blueprint for mental health wellness and suicide prevention within the construction industry.
“If our people are struggling, you know they shouldn’t suffer in silence. I mean there’s something that we can do,” Kinning said.
They developed the daily toolbox talk, and they expanded their Employee Assistance Program making it easier for people to get help from counselors. Most importantly, they transformed the construction workplace culture by having open conversations about mental health, and creating a compassionate environment in an industry that – historically – has been built on toughness.
“I think we’ve averted over 15 suicides where people have come up to us during crisis and have said ‘hey I need help,’” Kinning said.
One person who was brave enough to ask for help is RK Project Superintendent Dean Italiano.
“I have PTSD, depression, I have really bad anxiety, and I have ADHD,” Italiano said.
Italiano says he struggles with his mental health every day and there are times where he feels like he’s in a bottomless pit.
“There are some days you just feel like you just can’t go on. I mean it’s just… the pain is so great. And it’s so hard to explain to people. You just feel like you’d rather just not deal with it anymore,” Italiano said.
He says thankfully, he’s found tremendous support at RK. In fact, Kinning was the person he called when he was in crisis. Italiano says he knows the company culture is rare.
"It makes me so proud of this company, and it makes me want to stay here,” Italiano said.
Italiano is proof that the mental health blueprint is working and Kinning says he’s not afraid to share it with competitors because he knows it’s for the greater good.
“If we’re bold enough to bring an uncomfortable topic, maybe that emboldens other business leaders around this region or around the country to do the same thing. Like this just makes sense. Why should there be a stigma around this?” Kinning said.
He hopes more people will be like Italiano can feel encouraged to speak up and ask for help.
“Don’t give up. Fight. Just fight every day. Just fight on. It’s worth it,” Italiano said.
If you or someone you know is struggling, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.