While there are several Occupational Safety and Health Administration-established protocols in place for what a company must do after a worker is seriously injured or killed on the job, there are no requirements for how a company should help co-workers who witnessed the incident. Nevertheless, helping these individuals deal with the stress and trauma that comes with witnessing a serious accident is key to maintaining a healthy and safe working environment and should be a priority for the employer.

What to do Right After the Accident 

OSHA’s Critical Incident Stress Guide outlines what employers should do in the moments immediately following a serious incident to make sure the witnesses are safe. To begin, call for an immediate break and do not encourage people to quickly return to work. Instead, give them noncaffeinated beverages, snacks with low sugar and fat and find a place for them to rest that does not have any loud noises or strong smells. If possible, bring in a crisis intervention specialist to start speaking with workers about how they feel about the incident.

At this stage, OSHA says that speaking with employees as well as observing them can help identify signs of stress. The organization suggested setting up a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, a group discussion about the event in which workers can begin to process what happened and how they feel about it. The group nature of this debriefing can help workers find support through one another and can help employers determine who might need additional help from professionals.

What to do in the Days and Months that Follow 

In Safety + Health Magazine, applied psychologist Dr. Ted Boyce, who leads the Center for Behavioral Safety in San Carlos, California, emphasized the importance of setting up workers with local professionals to talk through the incident. The psychological trauma that often accompanies witnessing an accident could distract workers on the job and lead to more critical incidents. Ensuring workers talk through their stress with a professional could reduce distractions on the job.

Dr. David Adams, a psychologist who specializes in work-related injuries and trauma, told Safety + Health Magazine that supervisors should meet with each worker individually to determine whether each person is experiencing symptoms of critical incident stress. Supervisors can then recommend employees with relevant symptoms meet with a professional.


According to OSHA, if a worker’s stress symptoms last longer than four weeks, he or she may have developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and will need to continue treatment with a professional. Any worker exhibiting unusual behavior might be experiencing PTSD or be at risk of developing it. Here are a few common signs, though there are many more:

  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Uncharacteristic anger or fear
  • Withdrawal
  • Headaches
  • Guilt
  • Change in appetite
  • Nightmares
  • Grief

Workers’ Compensation for PTSD 

Legal advisory website NOLO said many states will provide workers’ compensation for someone who develops PTSD based on something he or she witnessed on the job. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to prove a correlation, especially because sometimes PTSD develops months or years after an incident occurs. NOLO encourages workers to seek help as soon as symptoms develop to have the greatest possibility of receiving workers’ compensation.

Preventing Emergencies: What Employers Should Always Be Doing 

Safety + Health Magazine also spoke with David Campbell, the director of safety at California-based Alston Construction. At Alston, Campbell said, supervisors have safety meetings with each worker once a week and also hold weekly group safety meetings. The goal is to foster an environment of open communication in which workers feel comfortable pointing out situations they feel are unsafe. When workers feel they can approach supervisors with concerns, more accidents can be prevented.


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