Man in yellow hard hat using wrench to repair pipes

When it comes to first responders, most of us think of law enforcement, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel. Of course, these men and women deserve huge accolades for their work. But there is another category of first responder that is so ubiquitous, it often goes unrecognized: public works jobs. These are the individuals working tirelessly in the background to restore essential services, like water and electricity, during a crisis. They face just as much pressure as other first responders, but the lack of recognition means that mental health concerns associated with public works jobs may go unnoticed. 

What is Public Works?

“Public Works” is a category of projects related to the country’s infrastructure. These projects serve a variety of  purposes, including recreation, safety, and health. Public works may include:

Public works jobs are any that relate to the establishment and maintenance of these types of projects. There are many millions of public works employees, all working to ensure we have continuous access to services we rely on (yet often take for granted).  

Have Public Works Always Been Considered First Responders?

While we have always acknowledged public works as “essential,” public works were not considered first responders until 2003. At that time, George W. Bush issued Presidential Policy Directive 8 (PPD-8), which officially recognized individuals in public works jobs as first responders. The directive also added “other skilled support personnel,” such as equipment operators, to the list. 

PPD-8 defines first responders as “those individuals who in the early stages of an incident are responsible for the protection and preservation of life, property, evidence, and the environment.” Public works jobs certainly help preserve property and the environment, restoring power, purifying contaminated water, damming floods, clearing debris, and so much more. 

In some cases, those in public works jobs are also responsible for the preservation of life. The presence of a multi-day power outage during a heat wave, for example, is associated with a significant increase in the risk of mortality, especially among children and the elderly. Public works first responders are the ones working tirelessly to repair power grids to mitigate harm due to extreme temperatures.  

Mental Health in Public Works

News stories involving tragic disasters, natural or man-made, are in the headlines almost every day, and it is rightly the victims of the accidents that receive the most attention. But it is also vital to remember the countless men and women working to restore essential functions, often at a danger to themselves. 

Individuals in public works jobs are faced with an emotional burden no less heavy than the nurse working to keep a patient breathing, and their hours are just as erratic and long. Yet the support for these kinds of first responders is often neglected, to everyone’s detriment. ALL first responders need access to mental health support.

First Responder Mental Health Research

The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies has conducted quantitative studies into the effects of occupational stress experienced by all first responders, including public works first responders. Repeated exposure to occupational trauma can lead to an increased risk of:

The prevalence of these and other symptoms in first responders is alarming. ISTSS cites research that demonstrates a substantial increase in trauma-related pathologies. For example, up to 37% of nurses suffer from depression and anxiety, while 42% report sleep disturbances. 37% of emergency medical personnel have thoughts of suicide, while 6.6% have attempted suicide. A whopping 77.3% of police officers report major depression symptoms and another 56.3% suffer from sleep disturbances. 

While there has been less research on the mental health effects experienced by “non-traditional” first responders, including public works first responders, an important study surveyed truck drivers, heavy equipment operators, laborers, and carpenters involved in recovery operations at the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks. Nearly 30% of the surveyed workers responded with symptoms detailing debilitating physical consequences, depression, drug use, and symptoms of PTSD. 

image conveying mental health statistics for public works jobs
From the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Mental Health Resources for Public Works First Responders

Part of the problem is that many first responders are unaware of the resources available to them. The National Library of Medicine has emphasized the urgency of the mental health crisis facing first responders, and is attempting to curb the effects with preventative measures. NIH points out that, while mental health disorders among first responders are well documented, many first responders do not reach out for treatment. The is due to several reasons, including:

Overcoming these hurdles can be difficult, but first responders should be aware of the resources available to them. To start, you can find a Certified First Responder Counselor near you in this online directory. All of these individuals have completed a specialty program that emphasizes the unique mental health struggles faced by first responders. 

First Responder Support in Destin

The Crane Center in Destin, Florida recognizes the unique pressure that all first responders face and offers a flexible, holistic approach to their individual mental health needs. If you or a first responder you know would like to talk to someone about mental health, Kathleen Hensley is our certified First Responder Counselor and would love to support you on your wellness journey. Please see the links below for additional mental health resources and provider options. 

Thank you for all you do! 

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