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— by Julie Sneider, senior associate editor
Starting in June, all U.S. Class Is, commuter railroads and Amtrak will have to tell the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) what their plans are to assist employees who experience "critical incident stress" on the job.
A new FRA rule requires railroads to have critical incident stress plans, outlines what the plans should cover in terms of counseling or other assistance when employees experience such events, and defines which employees — those who are directly involved or witness an incident — should be covered. A "critical incident" is defined as an accident or incident that results in a fatality, loss of limb or similarly serious bodily injury; or is a "catastrophic" accident or incident that could impair the employee's ability to perform his or her job safely.
Railroads also must inform employees involved in such events that they can be relieved of their job duties for the day, if not longer, to receive assistance, and to be informed of the counseling services available if they're struggling with the psychological effects the incidents cause.
The rule comes at a time when critical incidents — for example, when a locomotive engineer can't stop a train from hitting a trespasser on the railroad track — appear to be on the rise. Last year, the number of fatalities caused by trespassing climbed almost 22 percent over 2013's total, according to Operation Lifesaver Inc. (OLI), which cites recent FRA statistics. The rail trespass casualty rate — deaths and injuries per million train-miles — in 2014 was 1.23, the highest level in the past decade, OLI officials said in a report issued March 11.
While the rule is new, representatives of Amtrak, and several commuter railroads and Class Is say they've long offered assistance to employees who feel traumatized after being involved in a critical incident. For many railroads, the critical incident stress plan is part of an employee assistance program (EAP) offered to all categories of employees dealing with personal or emotional problems. But the rule has railroads tweaking, updating or formalizing their plans to meet the new federal requirement.
As required by the FRA, a railroad's plan must cover employees who work in transportation, operations, dispatching, maintenance and mechanical functions.
Officials at some railroads said the new rule will require them to expand the categories of employees covered by their plan, as well as train supervisors how to recognize signs of acute stress disorder (ASD) and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in their workers.
Amtrak's response to employees who've experienced critical incidents is part of the railroad's EAP. Historically, the program has focused on engineers and conductors. Amtrak is currently adapting its plan to address other employee categories covered under the FRA's new rule.
"What we've learned through research and from practice is that employees have better outcomes recovering from critical incident stress if we have a quick response in offering them help," says Chian Gavin, manager of Amtrak's EAP.
When an Amtrak employee experiences a traumatic incident, central reporting staff contacts an EAP counselor, who reaches out to the employee to provide "psychological first aid" in the first hours after the event occurs, Gavin says. The employee's supervisor also talks with him/her to determine whether he/she needs to be relieved from work for the day. The EAP counselor helps the employee determine whether more time off will be necessary to recover from the resulting stress.
"We want to be there to help our employees with whatever reaction [to the traumatic event] that they are having," Gavin says. "We also know that everyone is different, and while one person may have a very intense reaction, another co-worker may be fine."
Representatives of Amtrak's Critical Assistance and Response for Employees (CARE) program check in with the employee every 24 hours to make sure his or her stress-related symptoms are being addressed and resolved.
Across Amtrak's national network, critical incidents occur several times a week, according to Gavin. Most are trespasser fatalities.
"Unfortunately, a lot of incidents are suicides," she adds.
MTA Metro-North Railroad has had its share of high- profile incidents over the past two years, including the Feb. 3 train-SUV collision at a grade crossing in Valhalla, N.Y. The crash resulted in six deaths: five passengers and the SUV driver. But most critical incidents at Metro-North involve trespasser fatalities, usually about one a month, according to Anne Kirsch, Metro-North's chief safety officer.
Metro-North's critical incident stress program is part of the railroad's overall wellness effort to make sure employees maintain their health.
"This is a newly developed regulation under the FRA, but we've always had a critical incident stress policy so that we would be able to ensure that employees were allowed appropriate recovery time and receive the appropriate services following an incident," says Kirsch.
The policy has worked hand-in-hand with the railroad's EAP, which supports employees in need of assistance regardless of the source of the stress. But the new FRA rule will require Metro-North to update its critical-incident stress policy to include more categories of employees who will be covered by the plan.
"Historically, our policy applied to conductors and the locomotive engineers who operate the train because those are the people most impacted by an incident of this nature," says Kirsch. The updated plan will cover any employee who is involved with a critical incident, including someone who witnesses an incident or immediately responds to an incident that involves loss of life or the potential loss of life.
"They may be in the zone of danger and could be reasonably expected to react to an event," says Kirsch.
When an employee is involved in an incident, a Metro-North supervisor trained to respond contacts the employee immediately to check on his or her well-being. A determination is made as to whether the employee can complete the day's duties; if the employee can't, a reliever, such as another train engineer, is sent in. A ride home and contact information for an EAP counselor are provided, and the EAP department follows up to determine if the employee needs additional resources or services. Typically, the worker will be offered up to three days off to receive services. If necessary, the employee will be referred to another health provider for additional treatment.
Metro-North has provided critical-incident stress training to its transportation supervisors for some time, but training efforts will be extended to supervisors of other employee categories soon-to-be covered under the new rule, Kirsch says.
Like Metro-North, CSX Transportation uses its EAP program as a key component of its critical incident response plan. However, the Class I employs its own EAP counselors rather than contract with an EAP provider, says Allon Wright, director of CSX's EAP. The counselors are master's-degree-level clinicians trained in mental health, stress response and substance abuse.
When a critical incident occurs on the CSX network, the railroad's Public Safety Communication Center (PSCC) is notified. The PSCC then contacts the EAP Call Center, which reaches out to the affected employee. A conversation between the employee and his/her supervisor is held to determine whether the employee can complete work for the day. An EAP counselor follows up to assess the employee's symptoms to determine whether additional assistance is necessary.
The railroad's critical response team includes "peer counselors" — fellow employees who've experienced critical events in the past and are available to talk with a worker just coming out of a tragic situation.
CSX's critical response plan dates back decades. In recent years, it has evolved to emphasize a "resiliency-based model," which asserts that, by and large, employees are able to bounce back from adverse situations, Wright says. Of course, individual responses vary.
CSX won't have to change its plan much to meet the FRA requirement.
"Much of this regulation is based on what we and our peers have done in the past," says Dr. Craig Heligman, chief medical officer at CSX. "For us, the main change will be a requirement for training, [and a recognition] that we do need to reach out to supervisors on a recurring basis to remind them of what they need to do under [critical incident] circumstances."
Additional training will be a key component of Metra's plan to update its critical incident response program, as well.
Metra's "trauma policy" — in place for the past 15 years — was designed to connect locomotive engineers and conductors with EAP counselors following a critical event, says Pete Zwolfer, Metra's deputy executive director of operations.
Under the policy, locomotive engineers directly involved in a critical incident are automatically relieved from their job duties for the remainder of the day and referred to the EAP. They do not have to use sick time to see an EAP counselor, Zwolfer says.
Under the new FRA requirement, Metra will expand its trauma/critical incident policy to include employees in mechanical and engineering departments who may be working along the right of way and at crossings, where critical incidents can occur, says David Martinez, Metra's manager of regulatory compliance. Critical-incident response training of supervisors, managers and foreman will be expanded to include those crafts, as well.
That training will involve an eight-hour course titled, "Mental Health First Aid," which will address how to recognize signs of ASD and PTSD in employees after a traumatic event. The training will go beyond what is required by the new FRA rule to cover other mental health issues such as depression or suicidal behaviors.
"While we had the opportunity to train them for the new FRA requirement, we also will train managers and supervisors to recognize signs in employees who may not be acting the way they normally do," says Martinez.
Norfolk Southern Railway's critical incident response plan, which dates to the mid-1990s, falls under the safety and environmental department's authority, with the EAP serving as a resource, says Karin Stamy, system director, safety.
The plan's keystone is training supervisors how to respond to an employee involved in a critical event — how to understand what that employee may be experiencing and how to help them through it, says Stamy. In updating its plan to meet the new requirements, NS will formalize its procedures, as well as expand and enhance supervisor training.
"We have been at this game for a long time at Norfolk Southern, so this rule is not news to us," says Stamy. "But it is true that our employees are involved in these critical events. They're always regrettable and always sad, but they are part of our work environment. So, having a critical incident stress plan is a good idea. And for the FRA to recognize that some organizations may not have a plan and they should, is also a good idea."