From the moment attendees walked into the conference room in Falls Church, Virginia, on July 13, they could tell this Safety Champions Conference, held by the Sheet Metal Occupational Health Institute Trust (SMOHIT), was going to be different.

The large windows letting in summer daylight and the change in color scheme (gone were the safety orange and gold) were only the immediate cues the conference had changed. On the tables, coloring pages, stickers and table identifiers with statistics told attendees more had shifted than just the branding.

The conference theme, Beyond the Job Site, set the stage for what was to be a day-and-a-half conversation about mental health and how aspects of mental health directly affect workers’ physical safety on a job site.

“Safety extends past the physical aspects of our work,” said Joe Powell, general secretary-treasurer of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART) workers. “We must also address the mental health and well-being of our workers. Construction can be a demanding and stressful industry, and it is our responsibility to create an environment where workers can thrive mentally, physically and emotionally.”

This means working to promote a work/life balance, provide resources for mental health support and foster a culture of empathy and understanding, Powell added.

Aaron Hilger, CEO of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), said the “see something, say something” mantra for physical safety on a job site applies to the mental health aspect as well.

“When you don’t say something about unsafe practices, you put everyone at risk,” he said. “Everyone at the job site is responsible for keeping each other safe.”

One way to do that is to take care of yourself, too, and make your job site a place where workers want to be.

“Right now, [our industry] has the chance to grow, and I want us to meet the challenge,” Hilger added. “Our jobs aren’t going to be successful if we don’t take care of each other.”

This year’s keynote speaker, Kevin Hines, understands the importance of taking care of himself — at least he does now. Hines is a survivor of a suicide attempt off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, making him a member of a very small, very elite club. Since his suicide attempt in September 2000 at the age of 19, Hines has struggled with his mental health, a struggle he shared at the conference. (Click here to read more about his story.)

“I didn’t want to die by suicide. I believed it was the only answer,” he said. “I was wrong.”

Since that day, Hines has learned coping mechanisms to help him when he’s in crisis. Four words have come in handy over the years — “I need help now.” He has said it to friends and family as well as complete strangers. Sometimes, he just needs someone to sit with him. Sometimes, he needs to talk it out to a listening ear. Sometimes, he needs more. In over 20 years, he’s never had anyone turn him down, he said. This practice has kept him safe from his own mind, his own ideations, since he survived the jump off the bridge.

“My thoughts do not have to become my actions,” he said. “They can simply be my thoughts.”

This practice has taught him not to silence his pain.

“Your pain matters simply because you do,” he added. “Your pain is valid and worthy of attention.”

For the past decade the SMOHIT-SMART Member Assistance Program (MAP) has given apprentices and journeypersons alike an open door to reach out to someone in their local union if they are in pain. Through the program, members are trained as mental first-aid responders who can listen and get them professional help, if needed.

One aspect SMART MAP is currently working on is establishing relationships with employee assistance programs (EAPs) or working as an EAP to make sure SMART members are receiving the right mental health treatment for issues such as substance use disorder.

“Our members deserve better,” said Ben Cort, SMART MAP consultant. “If you have a good EAP, great. Keep pushing them to be better.”

In correlation with SMART MAP is the SMOHIT Helpline at (877) 884-6227, led by licensed counselor Jeremy Holburn. Holburn worked through what it means to be vulnerable during the second day’s activities, discussing how vulnerability is necessary in order to keep each other safe, whether it’s sharing details about your life or making a connection with someone over their distaste for rye bread.

“Vulnerability isn’t bad. Vulnerability isn’t good. It’s a necessary thing,” he said.

Attendee Jeff King, who handles safety education for SMART Local 33 in Toledo, Ohio, as well as for VM Systems, said it starts with a single “How are you?” You pay attention to people. You notice if they seem off. You address it. Pretty soon, it spreads and other people are watching out for one another.

“People start to see you notice and care and it’ll spread,” he said.

Holburn gave key tips on how vulnerability in a professional setting can help establish authentic connections:

  • Empathy is bearing witness to someone else’s pain. You don’t have to fix it. You just have to be there.
  • Have empathy for yourself and give yourself the grace you give others.
  • Practice self-regulation. It’s not always appropriate to share your entire story. Read the room and share in appropriate settings.
  • Practice self-awareness. Do you know how you feel?
  • Trust relationships.
  • Set and hold health boundaries.

A large part of helping others is helping yourself, said Chris Carlough, SMART MAP program coordinator.

“We all have pressures. We have a culture issue in construction. All of us recognize that,” he said. “The more you can let out that pressure valve, the more productive you’ll be. Everyone has a different idea of what work-life balance is and how that should be practiced. Keep that in mind.”

And you never know when you’re going to need to help someone relieve those pressures or be there for those who have been left behind due to suicide, said Tim Myres, administrator for Sheet Metal Workers Local 104 and the Bay Area Training Fund.

“It’s not somebody else. The stuff they talked about today you may need tomorrow,” Myres said. “And by ‘tomorrow,’ I mean ‘tomorrow.’”

Although the mental health aspect took a front seat during the conference, physical safety was not ignored. Jason Galoozis, director of safety for F.E. Moran, updated the group on heat stress and illness and how large organizations such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are handling possible guidelines.

Although some states have heat plan standards, many do not, and the federal government has yet to release an overarching standard in relation to heat stress.

“Our bodies respond to heat a little differently,” Galoozis said. “What you were able to handle in your 40s, you can’t do in your 50s.”

Advancements in PPE, or personal protection equipment, help with heat stress prevention, said Justin Crandol, SMACNA director of safety. While there are no federal guidelines, Aldo Zambetti, SMOHIT administrator, serves on the task force, so SMOHIT is included in the discussion.

“We have the opportunity to provide feedback on this topic,” Crandol said.

Although the conference was different this year, the focus remained on the health and safety of SMART members. And from the looks of it, SMOHIT is heading in the right direction. Hilger said Zambetti and his team are “firing on all cylinders.”

“And we are leading the industry, the construction industry, in safety, health and mental health awareness,” he added.

King has been to every SMOHIT Safety Champions Conference and said he got closer to people talking openly at this conference more than any other he’s attended.

“By far this has been my favorite safety conference,” he said. “The mental health aspect of it hits everyone and impacts everyone. What we did these last two days was more rewarding than I thought it would be. This is what safety is all about.”

What it’s all about is keeping members safe, mentally and physically, and remembering those we’ve lost, Powell added.

“Let us not forget the workers who have lost their lives or suffered life-altering injuries. They serve as a stark reminder that work still lies ahead of us,” Powell said. “We owe it to them and to the countless workers who rely on us to relentlessly pursue the highest level of safety.”

For more information on SMOHIT or the Safety Champions Conference, visit the website or call (703) 739-7130.