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Providing Valuable Stress Debriefing Services Following Critical Incidents

Unfortunately, tragic incidents such as falls, work zone intrusions, trench collapses and overdoses occasionally occur on the job. These kinds of events can be traumatic for everyone involved and can spur intense emotions that hinder someone’s ability to return to work safely. While the Fund’s primary focus will always be preventing fatalities and serious injuries from occurring in the first place, the LHSFNA also works to support the mental and emotional health of those who do witness traumatic events at work.

LIUNA General President
Terry O’Sullivan

“Having someone die on the job is the single worst thing that can happen on any worksite, and we all work very hard to prevent this,” said LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “But when such a tragedy does occur, LIUNA and the LHSFNA are here to help those left behind come to grips with what happened, and to move forward. Being part of LIUNA means that none of us ever has to face something this horrible alone; we stand together, shoulder-to-shoulder, in both good times and bad.”

One way the LHSFNA works to support workers’ mental health and well-being following a tragic incident is by helping coordinate critical incident stress debriefings (CISD). A CISD is a one to two-hour group meeting led by a trained specialist where individuals impacted by a critical incident can share their experiences, vent their emotions and develop strategies to cope with what they’re feeling.

What Is a Critical Incident?

A critical incident is a sudden and unexpected situation, usually involving at least one workplace fatality or serious injury, and can be traumatic for witnesses, bystanders or coworkers on a jobsite. When a critical incident occurs, people can become overwhelmed with a variety of different emotions. This can result in reduced work performance, burnout, poor sleeping habits, inability to concentrate, coping via excessive alcohol use or other unhealthy behaviors and even contemplating a career change. Additionally, trauma-related stress can cause physical symptoms that may not be recognized as an emotional response. These can include trouble sleeping, digestive problems and brain fog.

“A CISD session provides a bridge between the initial shock and devastation of a critical event to, ultimately, a place of healing and closure,” said Kathy Utter, Director of the Midwest Region Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund. “It can show someone that what they’re feeling is normal and that they’re not alone.”

CISDs were originally designed for first responders such as police officers, firefighters and paramedics, but can be used for any profession where employees might witness tragedy. The debriefing is considered a type of “psychological first aid” to people exposed to or directly affected by a traumatic incident. When performed within 24-72 hours of an event, a CISD can promote resiliency, recovery and help workers feel safe and ready to return to work. Without this kind of intervention, affected workers can experience greater symptoms of stress that can impact their ability to work safely and lead to destructive behaviors, both of which may – in the worst-case scenario – result in additional consequences down the line. The goal of a CISD is to avoid these possible outcomes and promote healthy healing.

A CISD is primarily meant for those who witnessed the event, those who were victims of the event and those who were close to a victim of the event. A CISD is not intended for family members outside of the workplace. These meetings are most effective when limited to around 20 people who experienced the same event in a similar way. For example, those who were on site and close to where an incident occurred, those who may have witnessed the event and those who were close enough to immediately respond. A CISD isn’t an investigation or a critique of what occurred, but instead is a space where people can have a voice, build a feeling of camaraderie with their coworkers and develop some tools for coping with their stress. It’s important to note that a CISD is not therapy, but if counseling is needed, the LHSFNA can also help provide additional resources for continued support following the session.

“Among other things, a CISD is an opportunity to learn how to handle a stressful situation,” said Doug Buman, TriFund Field Coordinator for the Northwest Region. “Think of it this way: when you become a Laborer, you don’t already know how to place concrete. You have to be taught how. It’s the same thing when facing a critical incident. You need to be taught the skills on how to process your feelings and move forward.”

Requesting a CISD from the LHSFNA

Coordinating a CISD isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, as every circumstance is different and requires a tailored response. Generally, when an incident occurs, a contractor should reach out to the LIUNA Local Union, who can work with either a TriFund Field Coordinator or regional health and safety fund staff member to report the incident to the LHSFNA and arrange for the appropriate critical incident stress management services. The LHSFNA will need some general information about the incident to assess what steps should be taken next. In any case, health and safety staff will provide resources and materials to be distributed to all workers involved. Depending on the nature of the incident, these might include handouts on managing trauma, stress and grief. Fund staff can also coordinate with employee assistance programs or a third-party CISD provider to arrange CISD meetings on the contractor’s behalf.

“Dealing with the aftermath of an accident on the job can be stressful and many people don’t know where to start,” said Amber Novey, TriFund Field Coordinator for the Pacific Southwest Region. “Coordinating a CISD can be as involved as you need it to be. We want to make sure employers know we’re there to support them as they support their employees through a difficult time.”

For more information on the Fund’s critical incident stress management services, check out the Critical Incident Stress Management pamphlet or reach out to Jamie Becker, Director of the LHSFNA’s Health Promotion Division at 202-285-2634.

[Hannah Sabitoni]

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