09/04/2020

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Witnessing a disaster: What workers need in the aftermath of tragedy

While much has been discussed about construction workers who are injured or killed in jobsite accidents like last year’s crane collapse at a Google jobsite or the partial collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel project in New Orleans, there has been much less focus on a group of workers who are also affected: those who witnessed the incidents. 

The examples are many: The superintendent who is on site when an accident occurs is asked to stand beside a body for hours while a preliminary investigation is carried out. A construction manager who must notify family members when a worker is killed or injured. Victims’ coworkers who quickly return to work following a horrific accident despite the terrible memories.

While it’s important that the victims and their families receive attention and aid, the workers left behind often need help as well, according to Patricia Kagerer, executive vice president of risk management at Jordan Foster Construction in Dallas.

Traumatic events on the jobsite “take a toll,” she told Construction Dive. “When these things happen, people working for construction companies are put in situations that they really didn’t sign up for.”

Kagerer said that surprisingly little support is given to workers whose friends and co-workers are killed or injured. “It’s not typically something that is addressed,” she said.

Guilt can be a factor, too, if a worker was involved in the situation that led to an accident. Kagerer remembers one incident at a former employer’s jobsite in which it appeared a worker had collapsed but it was later determined he had been struck by heavy equipment. The operator of the equipment had no idea he had run someone over until emergency medical services arrived. 

At the time of the incident, the contractor’s risk and safety departments “went into full investigation mode” dealing with OSHA and insurance paperwork and providing assistance to the victim’s family. But, “the one piece we forgot to follow up on was in talking to the equipment operator,” she said. “Three months later he went home and had dinner with his wife and son and then took his life later that night.”

Since then, Kagerer has vowed to help educate the construction industry about the dangers of job-induced traumatic stress. Even though the industry has one of the highest rates of worker suicide, emotional health is often overlooked.

“We have to remember that what we’re dealing with in construction is typically men who don’t usually reach out for help and they’re put under extreme pressure even to just return to a site where something terrible has occurred,” she said. “It can take its toll on people.”

Seeking compensation

Some construction employees who are left to deal with the aftermath of a tragedy take their cases to court seeking compensation for their mental suffering. For instance, a worker who claims he witnessed two co-workers plunge to their deaths last August while performing concrete work at a Marriott resort in Orlando sued Marriott International and PCL Construction Services as well as developers and other contractors affiliated with the project for emotional distress and other alleged injuries. 

Plaintiff Vernon Brown, who is seeking more than $15,000 in damages, alleges that he was working on scaffolding and stepped off just in time before it began to fall. Two co-workers still on the scaffolding died after plunging 80 feet. In addition to alleging that project contractors acted with negligence and failed to take the necessary measures to maintain a safe workplace, he also said that his witnessing of the incident led to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“In the hours, days, weeks, and months following this trauma, Vernon Brown suffered from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, heart rate increase, nausea, insomnia, panic attacks, and other physical and emotional injuries caused by this event,” the lawsuit reads.

The case is pending before Orange County (Florida) Court Judge Kevin B. Weiss​.

“In a crisis, we often get so focused on the victim and his or her family that we really don’t think about how the incident affected other employees.”

Anthony Huey​

President,  Reputation Management


In many states, psychological disorders with or without physical injuries can be compensated under workman’s compensation rules, said attorney Chris Stevens, principal at Woods Rogers PLC in Roanoke, Virginia. The rules are specific to each case but in general a worker has to have experienced shock or fright from something that is traumatic and unexpected, he said.

Emotional distress is more subjective than a claim over physical injuries and generally needs the testimony of a mental health professional for a successful claim, he added.

Having a proactive plan

To head off legal ramifications, construction firms should have a crisis plan in place that includes reaching out to workers who witness incidents, according to Anthony Huey, president of Columbus, Ohio-based consulting firm Reputation Management​

“In a crisis, we often get so focused on the victim and his or her family that we really don’t think about how the incident affected other employees,” he said.

The plan should include resources for helping affected workers, including community mental health organizations, the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention and the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention. The Construction Financial Management Association offers a page of resources on suicide prevention and mental health in the construction industry.

Companies can also train management and superintendents to keep an eye out for employees who may be struggling with post-traumatic stress and toolbox talks on the subject can help educate everyone to be alert to the signs.

“Is there someone who used to be a good worker who is now chronically late, and who no longer sits with the group at lunch?” Kagerer asked, listing some of the red flags. “Think about ways to bring those resources to the table and keep it going much longer than just a week or two after the crisis.”

Kagerer’s former employer hired a pastor to visit jobsites and connect with employees on a deeper level. He got to know employees well, and even performed last rites, baptisms and weddings for workers’ families.

“That’s a very creative way of doing something that really speaks to the fact that the company understands the culture of the people who work at our sites,” she said. “It recognizes the fact that they may not be comfortable talking to a supervisor or picking up the phone to call the number on the employee assistance program card, but they are comfortable talking to him.”