Bart Dickson recalls a sincere conversation he had a few years back with a union hall full of construction workers.
As the former president of Oregon Electric Group (OEG), Dickson wasn’t there to talk about onsite BIM capabilities or one line diagrams. Rather, Dickson was representing the American Heart Association and wanted to speak from his heart about the heart health of the gathered workers.
“I said, ‘Guys and gals, you gotta level with me. Your union leadership has negotiated effectively for some of the best healthcare packages in the world and yet your health numbers are not good. You’re not healthy,’” says Dickson, who today is CEO and principal of Portland, Oregon-based real estate consulting and development firm Cobalt. “Our reputation is that we're the least healthy industry of them all. So how is it that we who have the best healthcare coverage have some of the worst healthcare outcomes?”
He remembers they chuckled in a chagrined but good-natured way. Still, one worker’s response shocked him. “We don’t go to the doctor because we don’t want to lose two hours off our check,” he was told.
While the chat momentarily veered into a plea for increased financial education, Dickson’s message touting the importance of heart health and the alarming levels of cardiovascular disease in the construction industry resonated loud and clear.
“They said, ‘Who wants to lose money to be told bad news about their health? We don’t have time or energy to exercise.’ And yes, there are some cultural issues in the industry around health that we need to address.”
Dickson’s company develops multi-family and industrial projects with plans to expand into data centers. As a longtime executive volunteer with the American Heart Association, Dickson also builds awareness for Hard Hats With Heart, a nationwide Heart Association program that promotes the vital need for healthy practices throughout his industry.
“When we come together as construction industry leaders through Hard Hats With Heart, we can take action,” Dickson says. “A sheet metal worker might be on five or six sites a year. If the general contractors on those projects are all part of Hard Hats With Heart, workers start to see a theme throughout the job sites they work on and say, ‘My health does matter and I’m going to pay attention to it.’”
Designed specifically for the construction industry, Hard Hats With Heart was established in the mid-2000s to raise awareness by intentionally creating an open dialogue both with construction workers and executive leadership about healthy habits and whole-body health—all factors that contribute to positive heart and mental health.
Feedback for the program continues to be increasingly positive, and communication is growing across job sites, says Nick Brodnicki, executive director, Oregon and Southwest Washington, for the American Heart Association.
“Hard Hats With Heart is building a feeling of support for heart health throughout the construction industry,” Brodnicki says. “As a product of that, more people reach out to us and say, ‘How do we integrate what you're doing with what we're doing over here?’”
Currently, the figures are bleak. Approximately 211,000 construction workers—1 in 25—have been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, according to the Heart Association. Among the key factors, the Heart Association cites that 1 in 4 construction workers are obese; 1 in 4 construction workers use tobacco; and 1 in 25 have diabetes.
“The data is staggering and we must pay attention,” Dickson says. “The Heart Association is providing us with the data. As they convene industry leaders who care, we’re having a greater impact because we’re now working together.”
Fighting heart disease is personal for Dickson. Three electricians suffered heart attacks when he led OEG.
“We lost two of them,” he says. “Heart disease impacted people directly in my sphere of influence, the people I worked with, people who I cared so much about. And I knew that it was prevalent throughout our industry. When those three heart attacks happened to OEG employees, it became real. I was ready to take action.”
Through family and colleagues in the construction industry, Dickson got involved with the Heart Association’s regional chapter. He chaired the annual Heart Ball gala in 2019 and serves as a Western States board member.
Because he and his father started in the trades, Dickson understands construction workers’ routine. Up early, a lengthy commute to the jobsite, poor eating habits, and nicotine for some all add up to the risk of heart disease.
“Tradespeople make their money using their body,” he says. “And too often we put grease, tobacco, alcohol, and sugar into those important bodies. When the gut truck rolls up, there's highly caffeinated energy drinks and poor food choices. And if you don't have a home life where there's more healthy, nutritious food, you're going to eat whatever's convenient at a drive-through.”
Hard Hats With Heart is helping workers understand the value of bringing their own food and encouraging job owners to increase access to healthy foods onsite. The Heart Association also has multiple resources available to join or even begin a program.
“With an already enormous labor shortage in the engineering and construction industry, and estimates of 70% of workers having heart-related issues, we need to raise awareness on how to keep our construction teams healthy and strong,” says Roz Buick, senior vice president product, strategy, and development, Oracle Construction and Engineering. “Hard Hats With Heart is a critical program to support for Oracle and any engineering and construction industry player.”
Brodnicki says information about Hard Hats With Heart is free and easily available on the Heart Association website.
The initiatives scale for jobsites, and Heart Association representatives actively participate in safety meetings and toolbox talks. They also visit the offices of general contractors, subcontractors, and in classrooms with the unions.
“We’ll pair with a safety manager or site superintendent, and the conversations are overwhelmingly positive,” Brodnicki says. “Afterward, people come up to us and say, ‘Thank you for saying something, I struggle with this,’ or ‘We know someone who needs help with this.’” Which circles back to Dickson’s conversation at the union hall regarding workers’ overall well-being. As hourly workers, cultural norms about visiting the doctor coupled with financial concerns means they choose not to miss time on the job to see a doctor.
They won’t go to the doctor unless the pain is excessive, Dickson says, adding, “just put duct tape on it and you’ll be fine is part of the cultural stigma in construction we need to overcome.”
But he knows the life-saving message through Hard Hats With Heart is being heard.
“A couple of folks approached me after the meeting and said, ‘I lost a buddy three years ago ... I lost my cousin last year because nobody went to the doctor,’” Dickson says. “It’s more anecdotal than empirical evidence, but when a guy says it in front of dozens of people and they all nod their heads and say, ‘It’s a real thing,’ we need to listen and act. We’re trying to save lives here.”
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