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September 28, 2016
Accidents happen—Here’s how to recognize critical incident stress

In the immediate aftermath of an accident, the focus is generally on securing the scene and helping any injured workers, as it should be. But workers who witness the death of a coworker, come to the aid of injured coworkers, or clean up after an accident may find the incident traumatic, too—a response called “critical incident stress.” Some individuals can also develop long-term effects, known as post-traumatic stress.

You can help workers cope with what they have witnessed, recover their equilibrium, and safeguard their mental health.

Background on critical incident stress management

Who needs to be trained? Anyone who has witnessed or experienced a “critical incident,” such as death, serious injury, or a threatening situation, should have this information.

Why train workers in dealing with critical incident stress? After a traumatic incident, workers may experience debilitating feelings of guilt, anxiety, fear, or anger that affect their physical and mental health and their ability to function. Without intervention, they can become victims of the incident.

Basics of critical incident stress management

Instructions to Trainer: This training session will give workers an idea of how critical incidents can affect them and how you can help them manage critical incident stress. You will need specific information about the resources your employer provides, including mental health coverage and employee assistance programs (EAPs).

We work hard to prevent workplace accidents and injuries, but sometimes things still go wrong. While those situations are the worst for those who are injured, they can also be stressful for anyone who is a witness or first responder or who participates in cleaning up afterward.

Such an incident is called a critical incident, and depending on your circumstances, you may be deeply affected by it. If you were the first on-scene, close to the injured person, or already badly stressed out—or if other factors are affecting your ability to cope—you may have difficulty dealing with a critical incident.

This is called critical incident stress. It’s a recognized, normally occurring set of signs and symptoms, and we can help you find coping strategies to feel and function better.

Signs and symptoms of critical incident stress will vary, depending on the individual and how the critical incident affected him or her. They may be:

  • Physical. Trauma can affect you physically, causing unusual fatigue, chills, thirst, chest pain, headaches, and dizziness.

  • Emotional. You may feel grief, fear, guilt, intense anger, apprehension, depression, irritability, and chronic anxiety.

  • Cognitive. You may find it difficult to pay attention, concentrate, make decisions, solve problems, or remember things. You may feel uncertain or confused, or you may have nightmares.

  • Behavioral. You may act differently as a result of critical incident stress, finding it difficult to rest, withdrawing from contact with others, becoming irritable and antisocial, drinking more alcohol, and eating significantly more or less than before.

Watch for these symptoms in yourself and others affected by the critical incident.

To deal with critical incident stress, we’ll offer a debriefing led by an experienced facilitator. The facilitator will walk affected employees through a stress management protocol and connect them to appropriate counseling services if needed.

It’s important to understand that things are not expected to go back to normal right away. It takes time to process and work through trauma, and we will provide you that time. Most people will work through critical incident stress within 2 days to 4 weeks after an incident.

Practice Tip

Nearly 60 percent of businesses don’t survive 2 years beyond a disaster, but having a response plan to help affected employees will improve your survival odds.

Post-traumatic stress

For some people, critical incident stress becomes chronic. Critical incident stress that persists for more than 4 weeks is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Someone who suffers from PTSD is not weak. PTSD is an illness caused by extreme stress—for example, maybe the person was the first to reach a dying coworker. It can also be triggered by cumulative trauma. It might not be the first time the person has been through this type of situation—or the second or the third. This can happen especially with first responders or those who have experienced trauma in other settings, like veterans.

Workers who are experiencing PTSD can be referred to the EAP for direct help in dealing with symptoms. It may also be possible to provide on-the-job accommodations for such workers.


In the wake of a critical incident, it’s important that we help each other to cope and heal. Look out for each other out there.

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