While they may be exposed to traumatic events on the job, safety leaders are often unprepared for the ensuing emotional difficulties
Andy Kerr was the go-to guy for electrical safety in the utility industry. He was involved in the development of the CSA Z462 standard for electrical safety and the CAN/ULC standard for electrical generation, transmission and distribution. He was the lead and subject matter expert for the Electrical Utility Safety Rules. He would regularly get calls from utilities all across Ontario — and sometimes out of province — for help with the rules and standards, training and incident or fatality investigations.
But eventually, it all became too much.
“The electrical community is small… So, you end up knowing just about everybody. The people you’ve done training for are the ones you are doing investigations of when they get hurt,” Kerr explains. “At [one] point, I realized, ‘Man, I am broke.’ It was one after another after another; I would leave one investigation and walk into the next one.”
Kerr, who was a health and safety consultant for Ontario’s Infrastructure Health and Safety Association (IHSA), took 10 months off work and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and compassion fatigue. With the help of a psychologist, he determined he could no longer deal with investigations and be the go-to guy for the utilities. He ended up leaving his position at IHSA, which he held for seven years, and has been in his new role of director, health, safety, security and environment at Burlington Hydro in Ontario for a little over a year.
Unfortunately, Kerr’s situation is not unique. According to a survey in September of 400 health and safety professionals by Canadian Occupational Safety, 25 per cent said they have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Depression is the most common diagnosis, affecting 29 per cent of those respondents with a mental health disorder, followed by anxiety (27 per cent) and PTSD (11 per cent).
But it’s not just formal mental health disorders that are cause for concern. According to the survey, the following issues are ones that COS readers are currently experiencing or have experienced over the course of their safety career: fatigue (74 per cent), burnout (56 per cent), extreme stress (54 per cent) and insomnia (45 per cent).
Increased risk of mental injury
Much like those who work in the health-care profession, health and safety professionals want to make a difference, but with that level of dedication comes increased susceptibility to the stressors of the job, says Maureen Shaw, advisor for the Manufacturing Safety Alliance of BC and the BC Safety Charter, and retired president and CEO of Ontario’s Industrial Accident Prevention Association (now Workplace Safety and Prevention Services).
“They internalize it, but you can only internalize so much,” she says.
Safety professionals can be exposed to a wide range of difficult scenarios on the job. While 60 per cent of survey respondents have never been involved in a workplace fatality, 19 per cent were required to conduct the investigation after a worker died at their company. Thirty-seven per cent of survey respondents had to conduct the investigation after an employee sustained a serious traumatic injury (such as disfigurement, dismemberment or loss or limitation of the use of a body organ, function or system). Twenty-two per cent were involved in supporting the employee post-incident, while 19 per cent were first on the scene.
The challenge is to look at these incidents objectively, says Lawrence Nault, CEO of Leveraged Nuance Consultant Group in Calgary. Nault worked in health and safety for many years before opening his own consulting firm.
“They have to create an emotional disconnect to properly evaluate what’s going on,” he says. “As they go through the incident investigation… they are exposed to not only all the aspects of what happened, but all the emotions of the people that were involved. Without some knowledge and training on how to manage those emotions yourself, they tend to pile up and can become a mental health issue for the safety professional.”
Two-thirds (66 per cent) of survey respondents said they take it personally when incidents occur at their workplace. Kerr found this to be a regular issue he faced throughout his career and Shaw can relate, too.
“In my career, I have witnessed a few things, and it does keep you awake at night and you wonder, ‘What could we have done to prevent this incident from happening?’” she says. “Those traumatic events have lasting effects on most people.”
In his new job, Kerr tries to rely on an independent safety management system to ensure he doesn’t take things too personally. For example, if there is a motor vehicle incident at Burlington Hydro, supervisors know exactly what to do — they are not calling him for help.
“I believe safety people… become too personally involved. If you are the go-to person constantly and you haven’t built independence into your organization, that go-to person is going to take things very personally all their career,” Kerr says
Even the less serious incidents can be difficult. Nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) of COS survey respondents have been involved in an incident that was not a fatality, serious injury or critical injury but that was still emotionally taxing.
In 2013, a safety professional for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board in Ontario went off work after she developed an anxiety disorder due to the fear of being held personally liable for workplace incidents. She was responsible for asbestos removal at the board, but the Ministry of Labour had been critical of their asbestos removal procedures. As the supervisor of these projects, she said she was personally threatened with a substantial fine.
It’s important for safety professionals to be aware of potential liabilities, how to avoid them and what actions they need to take, Nault says.
“As long as they take the appropriate actions and document them, they should know they are pretty much protected,” he says. “That’s not going to remove the anxiety of it, there’s always that stress of, ‘Did I make the right choice? Did I push hard enough for management to make the right choice?’ But due diligence training is a big aspect of helping health and safety professionals understand what those lines are and what the expectations are of them.”
It’s crucial that safety professionals take proper care of their mental health to avoid the onset of disorders or other serious issues. A good first step is resilience training to learn how to effectively manage in difficult situations, recommends Nault.
If there is a workplace incident, a debriefing should take place with all involved. A second debriefing should take place with just the safety professional, Nault says.
“So, the health and safety professional knows that they have a chance to talk and talk openly. And they can determine on their own if they need more; they can go forward from there,” he says. “The other benefit is that debriefing for the health and safety professional is documented, so if there are problems further on, stress-related work challenges, other mental health issues that come up… it makes it so much easier to access resources.”
To protect his mental health, Kerr is very diligent about turning his cellphone off in the evenings and he takes time for himself and doing the things he loves.
Other techniques that can help promote positive mental health include taking regular work breaks, practising meditation and mindfulness, and exercising. Christine Burych, president of StarlingBrook Leadership Consulting in Toronto, recommends journaling, positive thinking, volunteering and taking time to recharge.
Employers responsible for mental health
Organizational leaders need to be trained on the signs of mental health issues, which can include mood swings, irritability, social isolation, increased absences, poor sleep and physical aches and pains.
“My mental problems came out in anger; came out big time in road rage. I would find myself flying off the handle in my own truck by myself,” Kerr says. “If I wasn’t mad as hell, I was bawling my eyes out when no one was around… You’re like ‘What the hell is wrong with me?’”
Leadership also needs training on how to have conversations with employees when they notice these changes, says Burych, who developed PTSD when she worked in front-line mental health many years ago.
“If your leaders are not trained but you have all these policies and procedures in place, employees are not going to come forward because they will be scared,” she says.
Unlike a physical injury, psychological injuries are much harder to recognize and those suffering are often adept at hiding their symptoms. Employees can be “the best actors in the world,” says Kerr, so this is why training for leaders is so important.
“Honest to God, my manager had no clue what I was battling with, he had no idea,” Kerr says. “No disrespect to him, he wouldn’t have known, he was an old trades guy as well and it would not have been on his radar to pick up on what I was dealing with.”
Many of the tools and resources that employers can put in place to support the mental health of safety professionals will also benefit the organization as a whole. Nault recommends employers adopt the voluntary National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.
Every organization needs a policy that says it supports the mental health of its employees and outlines the resources available. An employee assistance program should be in place along with benefits coverage for psychological services, Burych adds.
Kerr speaks highly of the Mental Health First Aid course and says it’s a really important tool that will help employers. The course was developed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and trains participants on how to help someone who is developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis.
One area that could be a great source of support is the educational institutions that train safety professionals, says Nault. For example, police officers, first responders and social workers are all taught how to manage high-stress incidents and protect their own psychological health and safety. The vast majority (86 per cent) of survey respondents said they would like to see the mental health of safety professionals being covered in OHS college and university programs.
“I think it’s imperative that that type of training becomes standardized within our profession,” Nault says. “There also needs to be some method of exposing them to what will be traumatic situations. Safety professionals, whether they migrated into that role from another position in the company or they made it a career, they often come in without ever seeing a traumatic incident and just having to deal with it.”
Industry conferences can also be more involved in promoting strong mental health for safety professionals.
“I did a quick scan of conferences that are coming up and no one is talking about the impact on the provider, the caregiver, being the health and safety professional. We need to have more of that conversation with them in the room and them seeing that we acknowledge that they are not infallible,” Shaw says. “We provide all kinds of support to increase resilience amongst people broadly, but let’s do something specifically with health and safety practitioners.”
When individuals open up about their personal experiences with mental health issues, it can often deeply resonate with others. When Kerr saw police officer Brain Knowler speak about his own struggles with PTSD at an Association of Electrical Utility Safety Professionals (AEUSP) meeting, that’s when he realized he had a problem.
“He completely nailed everything I was going through: all the emotional rollercoasters, the anger, the anxiety,” Kerr says. “He finished his presentation, talked about what happened to him and I had to get up and do an industry update on the electrical rules, but I couldn’t do it. And I am a presenter; I’ve presented my whole life and I’ve never had any issue like that. I got up and tried to talk to this group of safety professionals and I just started to cry and couldn’t stop.”
Safety professionals can be invaluable in helping each other navigate difficult circumstances. Shaw notes that this is a critical piece to the mental health puzzle and she says that opportunities need to be created for safety professionals to sit down and talk to each other and share their feelings and concerns.
“Informal peer support is absolutely critical,” she says.
A social network is a great way to build resilience, Burych adds. It helps individuals not feel so alone in their experiences and it provides an opportunity to talk to people who understand what you are going through. If safety professionals that have gone through some difficult situations can share their experiences and coping strategies, that can be extremely helpful for their peers, she explains.
Professional associations are well-positioned to foster such discussions. They should also be regularly informing their members about mental health issues and the resources they have available to support them, says Burych.
Kerr notes that an informal support group can also be beneficial. In his case, he is supported by a group of men from his gym who are EMS (emergency medical services) workers.
“You can talk candidly about how things are impacting you,” he says. “We sit down and just shoot the shit and I listen to their stories and they listen to mine and getting a different perspective does help — but it’s really difficult to get people to open up.”
How to get help for mental illness
The very nature of a safety professional’s job might make it rather difficult to seek help for mental health issues. They are so used to caring for others that it can be hard to care for themselves.
“One of the big factors is they need to be that port in the storm. But because they are trying to do that, in some ways you are closing yourself off to your own emotions while you deal with that,” Nault says.
Safety professionals might also be grappling with some guilt and feeling like there is no time to take care of themselves when they have so many other people to take care of, says Burych.
In Kerr’s case, he was used to making sure processes were in place to help employees recover after a workplace incident, but he never thought of himself. While assisting a utility in Newfoundland, a therapist was hired to help employees through a workplace fatality and one day, while having coffee with Kerr, she said, “Now we have to talk to you.”
“It was like someone punched me in the back of the head and I was like, ‘What do you mean you have to talk to me? I’m here to help people.’ And that was one of the first times that I realized I had never even thought about it. Shortly after that I realized I was headed for a wall, but I couldn’t see it.”
Although it might not be second nature, it’s very important for safety professionals to take care of their mental health. If they are struggling to make this commitment simply for their own good, they should do it for the good of the organization, says Burych.
“When you role model safety for yourself and take care of yourself, then you are actually taking care of others,” she says. “When we’re not role modelling safety for ourselves and we’re struggling, we might not be top of our game and we might put ourselves or others at work at risk or jeopardy.”
Kerr suggests thinking about the long-term costs of not getting the help you need. It not only affects you mentally, but it can have negative impacts on your relationships, including with close friends and family. When Kerr told his wife about his mental health struggles, she responded, “I know,” and it was clear that she and his two children were painfully aware of his situation.
“Where it goes sideways is in your personal life and when you are by yourself,” Kerr says.
Now, Kerr is enjoying his role at Burlington Hydro, a small utility company with an excellent safety culture. The company has not had a lost-time injury since 2012, so most of Kerr’s job is complementing the systems already in place.
While he still gets calls from industry for rule clarification, they have stopped calling him for help with fatalities. Although this is much better for his mental health, Kerr says he misses being the “go-to” guy and still struggles with feelings of guilt for having to leave his old job.
“I feel really guilty that I left IHSA because it was a big gap when I left because of the history I had of writing the rules and knowing where the rules came from. All that history was basically gone when I walked out the door,” he says. “But I know I couldn’t do that forever.”
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of COS.
25% of safety professionals have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder
47% say work negatively impacts their mental health
28% believe they are at risk of developing a mental health disorder
49% have sought professional help to support their mental health
66% take it personally when workplace incidents occur
50% occasionally take time off work for mental health purposes
60% have a peer support network of fellow safety professionals
Source: “The Mental Health of Safety Professionals,” a survey of 400 COS readers, September 2019