Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
Safety Specialist Rick Harrison is one of the District 7 employees trained in Critical Incident Stress Management.

Defusing Workplace Incidents Critical to Stress Management
by  Judy Gish
Issue Date: 05/2010

Caltrans program helps employees to deal with traumatic events in the workplace.

[Click on photos to read captions.]

As every Caltrans field worker knows, the road can be a dangerous place, where things can and do go very wrong with no warning.

A motorist’s vehicle can veer into a construction or maintenance site or equipment can malfunction, causing injuries or worse to workers. Those who witness the accidents can be deeply disturbed and, at one time, had no way to process those feelings.

All that changed in 2002, when Caltrans instituted the statewide Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) program. CISM is a short-term helping process to enable people to return to their daily routine more quickly and with less likelihood of experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sherry Liberty, Maintenance Office Chief, Personnel and Field Support in Sacramento, said that Caltrans is currently the only Department of Transportation in the country that offers this program. But it is not just for Maintenance, she emphasized. Forty percent of peer defusing takes place in other divisions. For example, 10 employees participated in the program after a recent suicide in District 4.

"This is a very important program that is helping employees cope with on-the-job stress," said District 7 Director Mike Miles. "It has proven to be so effective that I would like to see it expanded. In the near future, we plan to train several employees, including office staff, in this facilitation process."

The first step in the process is called “peer defusing,” which is done shortly after the incident. Defusing is designed to assure the person/people involved that their feelings are normal and tells them what symptoms to watch for over the short term. Defusings are limited only to individuals directly involved in the incident and are often done informally but, for Caltrans, never at the scene. They are designed to address short-term, immediate needs.

The next step is “debriefing.” A debriefing is normally done within 72 hours of the incident and gives the individual or group the opportunity to talk about their experience, how it has affected them, brainstorm coping mechanisms, identify individuals at risk, and inform the individual or group about services available to them in their community. Debriefings can only be performed by licensed therapists.

Safety Specialist Rick Harrison, one of several District 7 defusers, said it’s important that the witness doesn’t just shrug off the incident and go back to work before he or she is emotionally ready. “We try to create a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere where they have a chance to talk about it,” he said.

By having workers recount in detail what they saw, a defuser can determine whether the employee needs further counseling or needs to go home, driving them there if necessary. Employees are encouraged to take the time they need to process the experience. If they need more help, they are referred to the EAP program. “You don’t want to rush them back to work,” Harrison said.

“The program was developed in response to employee demand,” he added. “It’s been used a number of times in this district and everyone who needed it has benefited.”

Sherry Liberty was one of the first who saw a need for such a program after becoming involved with the aftermath of a tragic incident in one of the district offices. It was clear that a more organized approach to such incidents was needed, she said. After that, the trainings were developed and Liberty was the first one trained.

Triggering events also can include: injury or death of a child; serious injury; fire; death of a co-worker; line of duty death; serious threat; near miss event; and earthquake. “What we have found is that nine out of 10 people who get peer defusing the same day as the triggering event have no need for additional measures,” Liberty said.

Initial trainings are three days long and refresher trainings are one day. Harrison became a convert during his training, which involved role playing based on a real incident. “It blew me out of the water,” he said, adding that the program is “worth every penny.” Trainings have taken place both in Sacramento and in various other districts.

The effects of the program have been profound. ”I’ve had people tell me, ‘If this had been around 30 years ago, I wouldn’t have lost my first wife, I wouldn’t have kicked the dog.’” Liberty said. “We’re really glad that rugged folks in the field have seen the value of this.”

To find out more about the Critical Incident Stress Management program, please contact the Safety Office at (213) 897-0474.

Sherry Liberty, Maintenance Office Chief, Personnel and Field Support in Sacramento,  was one of the first who saw a need for the program.