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Responding to an industrial disaster: the tight-knit nature of manufacturing, communities poses unique challenges and opportunities to EA professionals responding, to traumatic incidents at industrial worksites.

We need to change how we are treating disasters in industrial settings. At some industrial sites, groups have been performing debriefings within 24-48 hours of a disaster and then leaving. Too many other sites are using the John Wayne technique--essentially telling workers to suck it up, drink a few beers, and get back to work.

Industries must be seen as communities and treated as such with regard to disasters. Like communities, most industries have their own unique culture, one that's often very similar to (and as strong as) that of firefighters, police officers, or emergency workers. Industrial cultures are governed by regulations, driven by safety concerns, and operated on a 24/7 basis.

Another thing industries have in common with communities is that they care for their own. In times of disaster, industrial workers become the first responders to their co-workers, even though they may have little or no formal training in this area. After they respond, they go back to work, though for some workers this may necessitate revisiting the scene of the accident.

Industrial disasters can range from the suicide of a colleague to a line-of-duty death to a multi-casualty incident (which would qualify as one of the five most difficult interventions for emergency services). They also can result from a natural or man-made incident, such as a hurricane or tornado or a terrorist attack (increasingly, industries are being seen as "soft spots" for terrorists). Every one of these events requires a complex intervention conducted by experienced, formally trained, and emotionally seasoned emergency workers.


In an industrial disaster, an EA professional will be dealing with three distinct groups:

* Victims/survivors;

* First responders (co-workers and emergency services personnel); and

* Families and co-workers.

When you receive a call to respond to an industrial disaster, you must first establish a strategic plan. If you enter an industrial worksite with the intention of simply performing a debriefing and then leaving, you risk doing very little for the individuals involved and giving management a false sense of security that you've improved the situation. In preparing a strategic plan, consider using the "five T's" approach:

* Target. Identify who needs assistance and who doesn't.

* Type. Determine the type(s) of assistance needed.

* Timing. Recognize when the assistance will be most useful and when circumstances will allow you to provide it.

* Theme. Consider the themes, issues, and concerns that should be addressed to build the right intervention package. Ask yourself, "What has happened, and what will happen?"

* Teams (Resources). Determine the resources that will be needed to provide the right interventions at the right time.

In planning for complicated interventions, you absolutely must have interveners available who are trained in a variety of crisis intervention skills and possess the ability to perform thorough assessments and provide appropriate follow-up care. The use of trained peers in providing crisis intervention services is invaluable: In an industrial crisis and disaster you must know and understand the participants, understand the cultural and political issues, and provide follow-up care for individuals who may need help for mental health problems.

Training in crisis intervention can be obtained through the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (, which recommends undergoing a minimum of 80 hours of training to achieve basic crisis intervention tools. The Association of Traumatic Stress Specialist (ATSS) offers three levels of certification--certified trauma specialist (CTS), certified trauma responder (CTR), and certified trauma services specialist (CTSS)--to individuals in the field; these certifications can be obtained by meeting the requirements for both training and hours of experience. In this type of work, the need for experience is of the utmost importance.

Equally important, you must remember that you are dealing mostly with normal individuals experiencing normal reactions to an abnormal event, not individuals identified as having a diagnosed mental disorder. Your role in crisis intervention is to help people survive the current situational crisis, protect them from additional stress or harm, help return them to their pre-crisis level of functioning, and instill hope. You provide a new beginning for people by letting them know you care about them.


In some instances, memories of previous events that are perceived by an individual as traumatic events can cause the same reactions as a fatality. I have observed in a number of industrial disasters that memories of past incidents create more of a problem than the incident at hand.

The heart is a very important indicator of how our body is reacting emotionally If our heart is in sync with our brain we are smart, energetic, and focused; when our heart is out of sync with our brain we become anxious, confused, and reactive. The heart rate variability (HRV) analysis is a powerful tool for assessing the autonomic function. It is accurate, reliable, and reproducible, yet simple to measure and process. The source information for HRV is a continuous beat-by-beat measurement of interbeat intervals.

I recently helped a man who had been involved in an accident that resulted in the fatality of a co-worker with whom he had worked for the past 15 years. In preparing this individual to return to his job, I walked him around the accident site. He expressed no discomfort while visiting the site, and when I took an HRV reading, the results reflected no change from earlier readings. But I was concerned that the readings were low, and ultimately I elicited from him a memory of a personal event that he had not previously discussed with anyone else.

I used Thought Field Therapy (TFT) to eliminate his reaction to that event. In my work with immediate survivors of industrial accidents, I have found the TFT complex trauma algorithm to be an invaluable crisis intervention tool. With this algorithm, I have been able to lower the intense affects of a disaster immediately without talking about the event or trying to figure out what happened.

In two one-hour TFT sessions over two days, I increased this man's HRV reading by 400 percent and entrained his heart and brain signal. The results were noticed by both the plant manager and the chief of security. This man was now ready to return to his job and do so safely

Without the HRV analysis, I would not have thought to look for other problems because the man seemed to have processed the event that had occurred. In addition, I would not have known if I was truly making a difference for the individual and whether he was ready and safe to return to work.


Assisting immediate survivors is only one of several challenges of responding to an industrial fatality First, you must be prepared to notify the deceased's family, knowing they will remember your actions and words for the rest of their lives. You also have to assist the remainder of the workforce and perhaps their families and the surrounding communities as well.

While it's generally safe to assume that the majority of individuals exposed to a traumatic event will not need formal psychological intervention, the obligation remains to respond to the needs of those who could benefit from acute psychological support. Those who far to plan, plan to fail.

In providing assistance to workers who were not at the scene of the disaster, I have found the use of the Code C Model (2) (consultation, outreach, debriefing and defusing, education, and crisis counseling) to be very effective. An important thing to remember when using this model is that you must allow a short period of time between the event and the assessment to permit workers time to react to the disaster.

Understanding spirituality is essential in addressing any traumatic event. Every incident has social, political and spiritual impacts. You must be comfortable talking about the spiritual dimension, for it is a major factor in the recovery of workers. Spirituality is becoming a part of the corporate environment, and the presence of chaplains and pastoral care in industrial surroundings is growing. This is an area that EAPs need to work on.


Failing to address the many different effects of an industrial disaster or crisis--whether on immediate survivors or those not at the scene--will add to the burden on the company. Traumatic events can cause an increase in the use of alcohol and drugs, raise the cost of health care, affect the safety of individual workers, and add to overall stress within the company

All of these developments can add to the bottom line of a business. All too often, however, businesses respond to industrial crises with nothing more than interventions. An intervention is a support service; it is not psychotherapy or a substitute for psychotherapy Crisis intervention is an antidote to crisis and trauma and is not intended to address management issues.

After but especially before an industrial disaster, properly trained and experienced EA professionals can be invaluable to corporations. Strategic planning is the most critical element of effective crisis management, and EAPS can help corporations develop comprehensive disaster plans. In my own experience with industrial traumas, I have learned that disaster work is much like doing concrete work: It is much easier to work on concrete when it is wet.


(1) International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. 2006. Strategic Response to Crisis.

(2) Myers, D. and D.E Wee. 2005. Code C: A Model for Disaster Mental Health Services Delivery.

Jim McAninch is the union EA professional for United Steelworkers Local 1138 and industrial coordinator for Pittsburgh's CISM team. He is a practitioner of Psych-K, Allergy Antidotes, and Thought Field Therapy and is a certified TFT Algorithm trainer.
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Article Details
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Author:McAninch, Jim
Publication:The Journal of Employee Assistance
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2006
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