Researchers assessed the intervention protocols for critical incidents in the rail sector in order to determine which elements in these protocols have major positive effects on the recovery of employees who have experienced significant stress, some of whom have more severe disorders.
Cécile Bardon is a researcher with the Centre de recherche et intervention sur le suicide et l’euthanasie éthique et pratique de fin de vie (CRISE), associated with the psychology department of the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). In 2008, she studied suicidal behaviour in the country’s rail industry on behalf of Transport Canada. “We realized that besides individuals presenting with suicidal behaviour, there were locomotive engineers who were completely overwhelmed by the situation, through no fault of their own, and who were seriously suffering. This took us somewhat by surprise because we naïvely thought we would be talking about suicide, when, in fact, most of our work ultimately consisted of understanding and identifying the immense distress in which employees could find themselves when confronted with this type of event.”
Overview of the Situation
Every year, some 100 people die in railway accidents in Canada, 20 of whom are in Québec. “Those figures are from 2007, and the numbers are rising. In fact, each death is just the tip of the iceberg, because in reality, many accidents do not cause death, but injuries, or the people die some time after the accident. And this is without counting accidents involving equipment or animals on the tracks.”
Most train engineers and conductors experience this type of critical incident at least once in their careers. They find themselves acting as witnesses, victims, participants and often as first responders.
Many get back to a satisfactory personal and occupational level of functioning quickly and have very few sequelae. However, from 4 to 17% of these employees will suffer from more severe disorders, including depression, acute stress, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or anxiety disorders. Needs are less well understood and resources are scarcer for those who do not develop PTSD and who suffer significant negative effects that remain undiagnosed.
A Productive Partnership
The Teamsters of Canada Rail Conference (TCRC), the rail employees’ union, and Via Rail’s management team were already working together at the time to establish better incident management and employee support practices, because they had become more aware of the problem over the years. “But it’s not their job to manage trauma and distress, and they felt somewhat helpless. The findings from the research project with Transport Canada and our recommendations for incident management came out right around that time. So we sat down together to talk, and they ended up drafting an incident management protocol based in large part on the study’s recommendations. I then offered to carry out a study of the implementation of this protocol to demonstrate the active ingredients of these practices, in order to establish good practice standards with important industry partners, which would then be applicable to other actors in the railway sector. The protocols were implemented in 2011, and were updated in accordance with what we discovered and what works best, or not. The process is very active and evolutionary. Via Rail has had a great attitude with regard to this program.”
A research project was submitted to the IRSST. It enabled an assessment of the implementation and effectiveness of the incident management and support protocols in the Canadian rail industry. With the help of the Teamsters, the researchers got locomotive engineers and conductors from all the class I rail companies in Canada to participate in the project. The only rail company that participated was Via Rail. Thus, 74 train engineers and conductors who had gone through a critical incident were asked about what they had experienced and felt in the week after the incident and in their recovery path after one month, three months and six months. Nine supervisors also contributed to the research, twice over three months.
Most employees recovered after a critical incident within the six month period covered by the study. “But the speed of recovery varied from one person to another,” states Cécile Bardon, “and the management of the return to work was of vital importance.
One of the most significant conclusions of the research project for employees, employers and organizations managing industrial accidents, is that the way that critical incidents are managed, as well as the work context in which they occur, have a major impact on the recovery and well-being of employees.
This study confirmed that preventive measures are important, and when they are implemented, they are effective. Of course, there will always be particularly dramatic situations where no matter what kind of preventive measures are applied, they will not be enough. I’m thinking of a case in which a train hit an SUV with the parents and their two-year-old child inside. It’s very difficult to protect engineers and conductors from the effects of such an incident. But there are many ways to deal with the situation as soon as possible and to offer assistance immediately.”
“Each person is affected differently; we just have to understand and recognize how things get to us and to never, never hesitate to ask for help when we feel the need. This is a message that we can’t repeat enough, especially in very masculine work environments.” - Cécile Bardon
Combating Feelings of Powerlessness
A feeling of powerlessness after an accident was frequent (75.7%) among the workers questioned, and it is a significant risk factor in the development of posttraumatic effects. It is important to define it on site and to provide employees with the means to take control themselves and the situation that they are experiencing. There is, however, good news, according to Cécile Bardon.
“The study confirms that you can make a lot of headway with little energy, when it’s put in the right place.”
“This requires adopting an empathetic approach, and in having a protocol and implementing it. It means that the company has to care about its employees, listen to them, and validate them in what they are feeling and experiencing, offering them assistance as they need it. These things don’t cost a lot. Ask how the person is and really listen to the answer. Accompany the person home, have a psychologist who they can talk to when things aren’t going well, or on site, do a briefing as soon as possible, provide support when the person goes home, call them the next day to ask them how they are. And don’t ask the person when he will return to work. Provide time off; do follow up. They’re small things, but they’re very effective. So it’s encouraging.”
Recommendations and Good Practices
The study led to significant advances in knowledge in the field and how to apply it in the form of concrete practices that can be easily put into action in the industry. The report presents a summary of good practices in the management of potentially traumatic incidents, as well as recommendations for designing and implementing critical incident management and support protocols (CIMSP). The Teamsters are currently lobbying other employers to establish this kind of protocol and the idea is catching on, because such a solution improves occupational health and safety and is cost effective. Via Rail is also leading the charge in encouraging other actors in the Canadian rail industry. “What we have learned about occupational trauma in terms of trains can also be applied to people working in subway systems, trucking, in fact, in any industrial environment where workers may have to manage an emergency situation involving injuries or death.”
For all those who find themselves in traumatic situations, the impression of having no control over what is happening, accompanied by feelings of powerlessness, anger or distress, are likely to cause psychological disorders. When people have previously received adequate training, they know what could happen, what they may feel, and what others around them may do. This helps them feel more in control and gives them a sense of the reality of the situation. Training is therefore crucial, not only for the supervisors and managers who must intervene, but also for the locomotive workers. Cécile Bardon is continuing this essential work with Via Rail. “Above and beyond the IRSST project, we are now finalizing their training program in understanding and managing traumatic incidents. This program will ultimately bring together all of the good things we have learned in the study and since the beginning of our partnership.”
Beyond Training: Education
There is one more key element to ensuring the effectiveness of the protocols. “We have to educate them,” insists the researcher, “we have to explain to the guys, and I say guys, because it’s still mainly men, that it’s okay to feel affected. It doesn’t mean that you’re weak if you’re shaken after seeing someone suffer or die. It’s better to talk about it and to ask for help.”
“Each person is affected differently; we just have to understand and recognize how things get to us and to never, never hesitate to ask for help when we feel the need. This is a message that we can’t repeat enough, especially in very masculine work environments.”
Author: Loraine Pichette