Overview of Critical Incidents

General definition of a critical incident

The scientific literature defines a potentially traumatic event as one that has at least several of the following characteristics:  The event

  • is sudden and unexpected,
  • endangers the person’s life or someone else’s life
  • threatens the person’s physical integrity or someone else’s physical integrity
  • is caused by another person
  • creates horror and fear
  • induces helplessness and loss of control.

Critical incidents in railways

The following definition is based upon the general literature on critical incidents and trauma reactions and on our analysis of 40 interviews with railway crew members .

In the context of the railway industry, the best known potentially traumatic events are fatalities caused by a collision with a pedestrian or vehicle. However, collisions with debris that may be mistaken for a pedestrian, with a pedestrian,or with vehicles that did not result in any injury and close calls which had the crew bracing for impact, are also viewed as critical incidents that may induce traumatic reactions. This category also includes fires or explosions that put a worker or co-worker's life at risk of injury or death. What constitutes a critical incident is somewhat subjective and is associated with several factors, such as whether it is personal, work related, social or environmental.

The potential impact of critical incidents on railway crew members

Not everyone who experiences a critical or a potentially traumatic incident will develop a traumatic reaction such a post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or acute stress disorder (ASD).  PTSD and ASD  are only observed in 25% to 35% of people after a traumatic experience. This does not mean that others are symptoms free. Most people will experience some short or long term effects on their health and well being.
Research has shown that individuals can have any of a vast number of traumatic responses which may vary from having no negative reaction (resilience) to developing long term PTSD.

Potential reactions to a railway related traumatic events are:

  • Resilience
  • Stress
  • Non diagnosed effect/sub threshold symptoms
  • Acute stress disorder (ASD)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Post traumatic  Disorder (PTSDStress)

Resources to better understand traumatic reactions in general may be accessed here.

These symptoms and disorders may also be affected by :

  • Cumulative effects
  • Comorbidity
  • Coexistence of other events
  • Delayed onset