Tradies face many challenges to their health. Whilst physical injury is often the first thing that springs to mind, there are many other health issues that need to be considered. With around 9% of Australians employed in the construction industry, these are matters that affect a large section of our population.
Mental Health and Suicide risk
Some aspects of tradie life can have a big impact on mental health. Long unsociable hours can affect family life and relationships, and there may be poor job security and financial stress- not knowing where the next job or next pay cheque will come from. Although public awareness of mental health has improved, there can still be a “macho” culture in the construction workplace, with pressure to maintain a tough “ invincible” image. This can make it harder to talk about problems such as depression, stress or anxiety. Sadly, suicide rates among tradies, construction workers and miners are far higher than in other occupations.
What can you do if you or a work colleague feel depressed or stressed?
If you feel sad or stressed most of the time, if you find yourself regularly using alcohol or drugs to “switch off”, or if you have thoughts of self-harm or suicide, it’s important to know that these feelings are very common (50% of people suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lives) and that there is always help available. The first step is to talk to someone- this could be a trusted friend, colleague or family member. Getting professional help is also important- an appointment with your GP is a good place to start. They’ll be able to help you figure out what’s going on, and discuss the treatment options available to you. In Australia, you are entitled to a mental health plan, which involves 10 counselling sessions with a psychologist per year, at a significantly reduced cost. Your GP can set this up for you- it can be of massive help if you’re struggling.
Nutrition and Exercise
Early mornings, long days and limited food options on construction sites can mean that soft drinks and unhealthy snacks become a standard part of the tradie’s diet. Over time, these sugary and salty options can lead to problems with weight gain and high blood pressure, which in turn become risk factors for Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease and other chronic health problems. And whilst many tradies are quite physically active, some workers may end up operating machines or being relatively sedentary for long periods of time- leading to further problems with weight gain. Preparing a packed lunch with some fruit or veg is a good start, as well as rehydrating with water rather than soft drinks (even diet sodas appear to cause weight gain).
Although tradie work can be quite physical, you can’t rely on it to keep you fit. It’s still important to take dedicated exercise, as this gives a different kind of all-round fitness, as well as helping with stress levels. Playing a team sport can also be great for physical and mental health.
A general check up with your GP every year or two is a good idea- they can measure your blood pressure, check your weight, and may request fasting blood sugar and cholesterol if you have risk factors. If you have a family history of conditions such as heart disease or cancer, there may be additional tests you’ll need from time to time.
Workplace safety is a complicated area- every site and every job has its own dangers. Some may be very immediate risks such as working at height or with electricity. Others may involve damage over time- such as exposure to dust or noise. And there are always new pitfalls- for example, in recent times there have been cases of tradies with lung fibrosis or “silicosis” caused by dust inhaled while working with stone products in kitchens and bathrooms. Protecting yourself from these risks comes down to responsible health and safety practices on the job- and a culture of workers feeling able to speak out if they have concerns. Further information about safety in the workplace can be found at www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au
A lot of tradies spend long periods of time outdoors. It goes without saying that hats and sunscreen will reduce the long-term risk of skin cancer. If you notice a skin lesion or mole is getting bigger, darker, itchy, bleeding or changing shape, you should get a doctor to look at it as soon as possible. It may need to be biopsied or removed. Early detection of skin cancer means it’s easier to treat and in the case of melanoma, improves survival rates.
Back and Joint problems
Given the nature of tradie work, physical aches and pains are inevitable. Back pain, neck pain, joint problems and repetitive strain injuries are all very common. If you notice a niggling pain over time, it’s a good idea to see a physio or osteopath before it gets worse, as an exercise program or a few changes to your work practices may help a lot, and stop the problem getting worse.
Tradies National Health Month runs through August- and it’s a great opportunity for tradies, employers and health professionals to have a conversation about the important health issues that affect so many hard-working Australians.