March/April 2011


When the dust settles, the trauma begins: Handling post-incident stress at the mine site

By Heather Ednie


During a training session, emergency rescue team members help a person injured in a vehicle accident, treating the injuries to stabilize the person before extricating from vehicle | Photo Courtesy of Barrick Gold Corporation

As the recent cave-in at Chile’s San José Mine so starkly reminded us, even in the era of safety first, major mining accidents can still occur. Apart from the injuries and destruction, there is a huge psychological impact on both the workers involved and the rescue and clean-up crews. And, some of the worst psychological trauma kicks in later, when the incident is over. As a result, mining companies are now putting more energy and resources into dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from on-site accidents should they occur, with dedicated staff and programs to help get workers and their families through the ordeal.

The aftermath

During a traumatic event, the human body is programmed to get through the challenge and to safety – the fight or flight response. But in the days and weeks that follow, as the body calms down and life begins to return to normal, acute stress tends to strike. There is no way of knowing who will be affected, or how strongly, or how long. “Most cases do not [develop PTSD], although 15 to 39 per cent of people will need some kind of care,” says psychologist Anna Baranowsky, CEO of the Traumatology Institute (Canada) located in Toronto.

So what determines how strongly a person will be affected by a traumatic event? “It can depend on the severity and duration of the event,” explains Baranowsky. “Was it ‘human’ in design – for example, a personal attack – or was it ‘natural’, meaning a true accident?”

Reactions to witnessing someone else’s trauma – known as secondary traumatic stress, or compassion fatigue – are also very real and also frequently require treatment. “It can happen especially when people have to go into the same mine the next day, where the traumatic event occurred,” Baranowsky says. “The feelings will be combined with a sense of loss as well.”

The three main diagnosis criteria for PTSD are:

  • Physiological arousal: physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, startling easily.
  • Intrusion: recurrent thoughts, nightmares and overwhelming reactions to reminders, such as going back on site.
  • Avoidance: withdrawal from anything or anybody that reminds a person of the event.

These symptoms are shared between primary and secondary PTSD and must last at least a month or longer and impact on the individual’s work or life to be considered PTSD.

The action plan

Most companies now have some form of Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to help workers after an incident. “At Barrick, part of our policy is to maintain a high degree of emergency preparedness,” says Craig Ross, the company’s vice-president of health and risk. “We have a detailed emergency response crisis management program, which includes counselling for the rescue team, workers and families.”

“We automatically assume everyone involved will be traumatized, one way or another,” Ross continues. “So, upon an event occurrence, we immediately engage our human resources department, who engages the EAP and brings in necessary experts. Those experts are called to site immediately – we ourselves lack the knowledge to provide such service.”

Counsellors are kept available as necessary – on site or in the local communities, for weeks even – to ensure a flexible, accessible approach for everyone to seek treatment and help as needed. “Typically, we’d start with a group session, then break off for individual help as needs arise,” says Ross. “During such a time, we will ensure the entire workforce is aware that counselling is available on site for anyone needing it. As well, we’ll make it available in the communities or at home – whatever the individual is most comfortable with.”

Like Barrick, Goldcorp relies on its EAP to provide professional assistance for employees and their families in times of traumatic incidents. As well, at fly-in/fly-out operations, on-site nursing staff has some experience and training dealing with trauma, and is equipped with referrals to seek immediate help for any in need.

On site, a process is set up to monitor employees and watch for signs of critical stress or post-traumatic stress. “We do a routine check-in with all the people, three to six months post-situation,” says Paul Farrow, Goldcorp’s vice-president of safety and health. “As well, everyone undergoes the annual health screens. These are confidential, but provide opportunity to observe and potentially link troubles to an incident in the past.”

Knowledge is power

The role of the EAP and general stress management are part of the regular safety training at Barrick. But if an incident occurs, workers are immediately gathered and briefed on what to look out for in terms of PTSD. First responders and emergency rescue teams are trained to recognize the signs of trauma – in others and in themselves – as part of their standard training.

“I was an emergency responder and went through that training,” Ross says. “When you’re dealing with critical stress, it’s not so evident during an incident. It’s after, when everything shuts down, that it hits you and then you need to watch each other.”

Goldcorp is planning on taking PTSD awareness a step further, by including it in its Supervisor Leadership Development Program. “We want all our supervisors and managers to understand [PTSD],” says Farrow. “If they see an employee looking unengaged, they are to follow up.”

Keeping it real

Looking at on-site accidents in relation to their impact on family and coworkers has been a major driver behind improving PTSD care at Goldcorp. “Our people and their families are known to the managers,” says Farrow. “We rely on those relationships; our employees know we care. And that makes them more willing to come forward when incidents arise.”

Employees are encouraged to look out for one another; peer support can be critical after a traumatic event when family and others unrelated to the site may not understand the extent of their trauma. “We rely heavily on peer support; it has a ripple effect,” Farrow says. “With the caring activity at work obvious, employees know they can go to a colleague or their supervisor to talk as needed.”

Goldcorp’s corporate culture of caring has, unfortunately, been recently put to the test. Last fall, a female truck operator named Karla Dávila was fatally injured while operating a haul truck at a Goldcorp mine in Mexico. Karla’s death had a huge impact throughout the company. She was a single parent of a three-year-old and the primary financial provider for her extended family. “We had mines in South Dakota taking collections and making great efforts to raise money for her child and family on their own; they were not asked to do anything by the corporation,” Farrow says. “When Karla’s mother accepted those donations and gifts, it helped her to see how much Karla was cared for across the company.”

Think ahead

Smart companies will be equipped to deal with the effects of a severe trauma, even as they pull out all the stops to avoid having one happen. Baranowsky recommends a few simple steps to ensure companies will be in a position to provide the best support for their workforce at such times:

  • Have experts in post-traumatic response available for staff and their families.
  • Have a program in place to educate workers about PTSD symptoms.
  • Be prepared to offer a variety of treatments: individual and group counselling, peer-to-peer support, etc.
  • Ensure the potential psychological impacts of such an event are well understood, and that all managers are able to identify those individuals who may need extra care.

Mining companies have to be flexible and willing to do what it takes to provide opportunities for treatment for workers and their families in such times. “We must listen to the counsellors,” Ross adds. “The right answer is, ‘we’re not experts, we’re miners’. In an emergency, there are a few calls you make and the EAP is one of the first ones.”

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