Bullying in construction—what workers say

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  • About one in five U.S. workers have experienced verbal abuse, harassment, threats, violence and bullying in the workplace.
  • The construction industry has a high prevalence of bullying and hazing, especially among apprentices.
  • FUEL asked people in the construction industry to share their experiences with bullying or hazing. Here’s what we heard.

Most conversations about bullying that make the news cycle revolve around children and teens. However, adults also often experience bullying—and, sometimes commit bullying themselves—in the workplace.

About one in five American workers have been exposed to verbal abuse, unwanted sexual attention, threats or humiliating experiences, or—even worse—physical violence, bullying or sexual harassment, according to the American Working Conditions Survey conducted by the Rand Corporation. More than 10 percent said they had experienced bullying or harassment in the past year, while 12.8 percent reported verbal abuse and threats and 9 percent—humiliating behavior in the past month.

Bullfloats and bullying

The construction industry in particular has a high prevalence of bullying and hazing, with nearly 60 percent of workers reporting harassment, a study by Opportunity Now and PwC found. Minorities, subcontractors, and apprentices are often seen as more vulnerable groups and report higher instances of being bullied.

One-third of apprentices experience bullying, which can take the form of intimidation, verbal abuse, harassment, name-calling, or damage to their personal property.

Bullying in the construction industry can be difficult to identify, since it often happens “under the radar” of management. Sometimes, it may even be entrenched in a company’s culture, meaning leadership sees nothing wrong with it. Nevertheless, bullying can put workers in danger, diminish productivity, and lead to high turnover. According to a blog post at Initiafy, “within a company, bullying acts as a poison which seeps into the psychological well-being of the victim while also damaging the company’s reputation and negatively impacting the productivity of other workers.”

The word from workers on bullying

FUEL posed the question of job site bullying on Reddit. We got a variety of responses from users, the most commonly expressed sentiment being that incidents, like pranks, are meant to be good natured. Below is some of what our small and random sampling shared. Responses have been edited for clarity, length and to remove identifying information.

Georgia

“(Bullying) absolutely continues today. With rare exception, it’s generally understood to be good natured. You sometimes get the random dude that can’t handle it and either quits or blows a gasket. To be honest, those guys wouldn’t last in this business anyway. This isn’t sunshine and roses. It’s often hot, wet, muddy, rainy, or cold. You either have thick skin when you show up or grow it pretty quick. If you don’t, the hazing will be the least of your concerns.”

Texas

“I’ve definitely seen a lot of guys letting their apprentice take the hit for shoddy work when they themselves did the work. That’s about it.”

Arizona

“I work in residential construction. While there is nothing like that in the house, if you go out to just about any port-a-potty, you’ll likely find graffiti dealing in racist themes. Honestly, it’s more surprising to see a potty clean from graffiti than it is to see one with it. The companies try to keep them clean by sanding out the scratches or painting over the marker, but it’s an uphill battle to keep up with it all.”

California

“I work in commercial construction. From my experience of a half year in construction, the job site is pretty diverse. Respect is pretty much a given all around. Occasionally, I’ll see a swastika in a port-a-potty. I’ve had people make racist and homosexual jokes towards me, and I’ve heard it towards other minorities, too—almost always in lighthearted, non-offensive ways. More often than not, what I find more offensive is someone staring at you, making eye contact but not greeting you or saying anything, which happens quite a bit. Otherwise (it’s) just the normal apprentice/new guy stuff most people have probably heard. My ironworker friend has told me he was whipped with rebar during his apprenticeship, and my framing class teacher from Australia has told me people were openly racist to him back in the ’70s and ’80s.”

Canada

“(It’s) not really hazing or bullying, more just stupid horseplay. A few years back, we were using some rapidly expanding foam wire-pulling lubricant. This stuff came in a can with a flexible hose nozzle. Unfortunately, the hose was also perfect for stealthily slipping down into a person’s pocket or collar while they weren’t looking. The debacle all came to a head when one of our supervising journeymen, fed up, emptied the remainder of the can into a garbage bin to force us to go back to using the yellow goop. This garbage bin happened to be close to the chop saw. Shortly afterwards, when a worker started cutting some metal on the saw, a spark ignited the bin full of lube causing a brief, but hellish, inferno. Quite luckily, the same worker was an experienced volunteer firefighter, and we had the appropriate extinguisher at the cutting station, so the disaster was contained to the bin.”

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