Critical Incidents in the Workplace
In a work setting, a critical incident generally involves traumatic events such as an injury, fatality, or robbery that causes psychological trauma to the people exposed to the incident.
Immediately following the incident, normal procedures for responding to emergency situations should be followed. This could include, but may not be limited to; applying first aid to any injured individuals, securing the site for safety reasons, removing onlookers, contacting emergency services, etc.
What happens after a critical incident?
A person who has been exposed to a traumatic event may show various signs and symptoms of possible trauma. The signs and symptoms can appear very soon after the incident, or they may be delayed for days or even months.
Common signs and symptoms
A person who has been exposed to a traumatic event may show some of the following signs and symptoms:
- Excessive sweating
- Poor attention
- Poor memory
- Intrusive thoughts
- Emotional outburst
- Change in appetite
- Increased use of substances
Some individuals may show little or no reaction initially. A person who at first appears to have been unaffected by the event could still develop significant symptoms.
Responding to affected individuals
Affected individuals will benefit from acknowledgement that they have been exposed to a traumatic and potentially distressing event. Downplaying the event or the after-effects of the event is not advised.
Asking the individuals how they are feeling and what they think they might need initially is a positive first step.
Individuals can react in very different ways to a traumatic incident and their needs immediately following the incident can differ as well. Some people may want to talk about what happened and it will be important to provide an opportunity for those individuals to have access to co-workers, supervisors, friends, etc.
Other people may prefer to work through their initial thoughts and feelings on their own. Again, providing an opportunity for these individuals to have some time to themselves will be important.
There is no one preferred way for all individuals to initially respond. Over the longer term, it is not healthy for individuals to become too reliant on group interactions or to become socially isolated. However, in the shorter term, it is reasonable to allow the affected individuals to engage in the coping that is natural and comfortable for them. Supervisors and first aid personnel can be of great assistance at this early point by providing an understanding and non-judging environment that is flexible to the needs of the individuals who have been affected.
Critical incident debriefing (CID)
A CID can be a very effective means of reducing the potential for longer term effects. The individuals should be asked if they would like to participate in debriefing and initial information as to what a debriefing entails can be offered at that time.
Once the above steps have been completed, the Critical Incident Response provider can be contacted and a debriefing can be scheduled. The CID may occur on the same day as the incident or it can be scheduled within 48 hours after the incident.
Longer term effects
In most cases, affected individuals are able to access their personal supports and, with the passage of time, will suffer no significant ill effects. In some cases; however, symptoms can linger and may become so severe that professional intervention will be required.