On my watch

How safety professionals cope – personally and professionally – with a workplace death

By Ashley Johnson, associate editor

  • Safety professionals often experience guilt after an employee death regardless of whether they could actually have done anything to prevent it.
  • The trauma of being exposed to a workplace fatality or serious injury could lead to post-traumatic stress disorder or a condition called cumulative stress, which occurs when stress builds up as a person repeatedly experiences traumatic events.
  • Experts recommend developing coping strategies in advance. Talking to family, friends, counselors or other safety professionals can help.

Most safety professionals likely will never have an employee die on the job. But those with experience handling a workplace fatality say the incident stayed with them long after the paperwork had been filed. “Some people say time goes by, you forget about it. No you don’t,” said Ardell Moore, safety manager at Vancouver,WA-based Barrett Business Services Inc. In his 12 years in the safety field, Moore has seen four work-related fatalities, all involving vehicles. “I take it very personally,” he said. “You have to, if you care.” In 2008, 5,071 fatal work injuries occurred, according to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Behind the fatalities lie safety professionals who may have had to administer CPR or figure out how to remove an employee’s body from a machine.

They provide assistance to traumatized co-workers and notify the victim’s family, and in the days following a tragedy, they must prepare for a lengthy investigation while helping the workplace return to normal. In these situations, it becomes easy to forget the safety professional also is dealing with a range of emotions.

“They oftentimes put their own reaction and emotions kind of in check, almost on the back burner, because they need to perform their role,” said Dr. Richard Ottenstein, licensed psychologist and CEO of Workplace Trauma Center, an Eldersburg, MD-based provider of trauma response training services. “And they’re generally focused on taking care of their people, and that’s their priority as opposed to taking care of themselves.”

When bad things happen

Work-related or not, an employee death in the workplace produces a variety of emotions, from shock and numbness to distress, grief and anger. But succumbing to emotions is not an option for the person responsible for helping everyone else.

“You sort of have to stay focused and realize that you’re the person in charge,” said Ed Hughlett, Ports America Group’s regional safety and health manager for Northern California. With more than 30 years in the stevedoring industry, Hughlett has come to know most, if not all, of the longshoremen in the area. He said their deaths or injuries remind him of his own vulnerability.

In the past five years alone, Hughlett said he has handled three fatalities. One involved a ship-boarding agent who was hit by a tractor making a wide U-turn. The agent, who did not work for the company, was not wearing a high-visibility vest and the driver did not see him, Hughlett said. He noted the agent probably passed dozens of employees that day. “Any one of them could have said, ‘Hey, where’s your vest?’ None of them did,” he said.

Hughlett acknowledged how the trauma of a workplace death lingers. “It sits on my mind; it sits with you for a couple days,” he said. “You contemplate all the ‘what ifs’ and all the opportunities that could have prevented the accident.” Usually, a chain of events produces an accident; if one event was removed, the accident may not have happened, he added.

In his 26 years as a safety officer for various employers, David Becker estimates he has seen 20 serious injuries or fatalities, including a helicopter crash that killed a flight crew, a homicide/suicide, an accident that took a person’s leg and a friend who burned to death.

“Only in one case did anyone say anything about my emotional needs,” Becker said. “The rest of the time the employer gave me a job to do: secure the facility and grounds, contact OSHA, help deal with the press, and defend an OSHA citation which I am expected to win.”

As safety officer for Stanislaus County in central California, Becker oversees the safety of approximately 3,800 employees. He said the county does a lot of safety training, and he takes every opportunity to drive home the message of safety.

“Now I do routinely tell people when I teach that I won’t be there when they make a critical error or something bad happens, and I will not pay the ultimate cost. It’ll be them,” Becker said. “I try to say that in a way that I instill in them interest because sometimes … we get a little flippant when it comes to safety. You know, ‘He’s talking to somebody else. This stuff will never happen to me.’”

When something bad does happen, employees may blame the safety professional, regardless of whether the individual could actually have prevented the fatality. Mary Jo Press, environmental, health and safety manager for Des Moines, IA-based Kemin Industries Inc., said the attitude comes off as “You let this happen” or “You should have done something different.”

“Sometimes it becomes a load because you seem to carry it for everyone, and you’re always in the wrong if someone has an injury or has a fatality,” Press said.

In those cases, it is important to help employees grasp what happened. For example, Press said when a worker at her former employer suffered a fatal heart attack, an automated external defibrillator did not deliver a shock because the person had an unshockable rhythm. It took some explaining for employees to understand the machine had not failed and everything possible had been done to resuscitate the worker.

Emotional toll

Through the Workplace Trauma Center, Ottenstein provides onsite support after a workplace tragedy. Staff at the center provided services to more than 50 corporations following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. When assisting workers and managers after an incident, Ottenstein said he also takes time to check on the safety professional and offer resources.

Some safety professionals feel guilty for not having been able to prevent the tragedy. “It may be totally out of their control, but because their role is to ensure safety and health, they feel they should have been able to prevent it anyway,” Ottenstein said. At times, the guilt is rational because the safety professional made a mistake or missed something. “In those cases, a person has to work at learning to forgive themselves,” he said. Although facing guilt can be uncomfortable, he cautioned against shutting down, which allows emotions to fester.

Post-traumatic stress is a common and normal reaction to being exposed to a traumatic event, Ottenstein said. However, post-traumatic stress disorder develops when symptoms persist. PTSD is characterized by recollections of the event, avoidance, numbing, and increased anxiety or emotional arousal, according to the fourth edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”

A person may experience flashbacks, nightmares, difficulty sleeping, irritability, and difficulty concentrating or completing tasks. Symptoms may appear immediately after the traumatic event or months later. “In its severe forms it can be a completely disabling disorder,” Ottenstein said.

He also warned of a condition known as cumulative stress, which occurs when a person repeatedly encounters traumatic events. “It may be that one incident a person handles well, and a second incident a person handles well, but over time the stress builds up to a point [where] it’s kind of like the well overflows,” he said. “They reach a point where their ability to cope with the stress is overwhelmed.”

Failing to handle stress could lead to a gradual erosion of a person’s resilience and ability to cope, according to Ottenstein. An individual may become irritable, lose interest in work, become quieter at home or lash out at family members.

For many safety professionals, working through the emotional toll is a long process. In an e-mail to Safety+Health magazine, a safety professional with more than 35 years of experience in the mining industry said in his younger years he was able to move on from fatalities after about six months of sleepless nights.

He now uses his experiences to train the next generation of miners about safety hazards. “When they hear names and my shared history with the victims, the reality hits home and a teachable moment occurs,” he said. “But for me, the wound becomes fresh again.”

A job to do

The emotional aspect of a workplace fatality is compounded by professional responsibilities. The list of duties can seem endless: preserve the scene for a good audit, determine which operations can return to normal, assist employees, make sure the family is notified, pull equipment procedures and inspection results, prepare reports, deal with lawyers … and on it goes. Providing comfort to employees and family members while protecting the organization’s interests can be a difficult balance.

Mark Medley, department safety officer for the city of Austin, TX, had to notify the family of a worker killed in what Medley said could be characterized as a freak accident. The worker, wearing safety toe boots and a hard hat, was setting out cones for pavement markings while sitting on the tailgate of a truck moving 5 mph when the vehicle hit a pothole, causing him to fall off and strike his head.

“When you grieve with the family, not only do you have to show that empathy or that compassion, you’re also caught in that mix of emotions where the department could be implicated, the safety team could be implicated, and so you have to be careful,” Medley said. “I think you’re OK if you tell the truth about what happened, you promise to figure out why it happened and then you show the family that you took steps to prevent that from happening again. That’s the most you can do, because you can’t take back that unfortunate event.”

For some, the scrutiny of an OSHA investigation takes a toll comparable to the trauma of the loss. Referring to the OSHA inspection at a previous employer after a supervisor was killed in an accident involving a robotic stacker crane, Press said, “[OSHA is] there for weeks, so you don’t sleep. They bring a team in and they keep rotating so the safety professional has to be there all the time.” And it does not end when the inspectors leave. Challenging OSHA citations takes time and, if the organization is sued, court cases can stretch on for years.

Knowing where to turn

Just as organizations should prepare a response plan before tragedy occurs, safety professionals should develop coping strategies before they need them.

Ottenstein recommends taking a program on the subject of building and maintaining psychological resilience or self-care after a disaster. “That doesn’t mean you’re going to be trauma-proofed – that doesn’t happen – but it may mean that you know where to go for help,” he said. “I think the biggest barrier for health and safety people is thinking that if they go for help it means that they’re weak and that there’s something wrong with them. A lot of training focuses on ‘that isn’t the case.’”

Press recommends post-traumatic stress disorder training, which she took as a volunteer paramedic. She said the course gave her resources she used to support co-workers after an employee died.

At some point after a workplace death, safety professionals should take time to assess their own feelings. Some will realize they are fine. However, Ottenstein advises people to consider seeking outside support if they do not know how to handle their reactions or it is taking them longer than they would expect to recover. “People know themselves and they know the time frame it takes them to handle things,” he said.

Ottenstein noted there is a misconception that people will be lured into psychotherapy if they call the employee assistance program. Rather, the goal of counseling is to provide help to restore a person to normal function, he said.

Many safety professionals said communication is the key. Ben Bailey, occupational safety and health specialist for the U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center in Fort Rucker, AL, said he finds relief by speaking with his wife about incidents.

Becker of Stanislaus County said what helped him was “learning that, first of all, I’m not an island. I’ve got a phone and I can call people to help. And secondly, in the final analysis, this wasn’t my decision. Whatever happened, happened. I’m just trying to make it better or trying to [do] damage control.”  

He leans on a support network of friends and professionals, including his organization’s director of workplace wellness. “The pros that I call for help support me during and after the case investigation process is over.” Becker said. “I trust in my friends and the One Above to sort out these things and look after me.”

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