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Union Pacific Peer Support Reaches Out to Employees Following Tragic Incidents

Railroad’s Employee Volunteer Program Provides Reassurance

It’s a sunny warm late-spring day. A light breeze gently moves the leaves on the oak, hickory and birch trees on the hillside of a heavily wooded area. Railroad tracks, laid nearly 145 years ago, follow the cuts in the hills made by glaciers thousands of years ago. A train, making its way from the Midwest to Texas, rounds a curve onto an approach to a 500-foot long bridge that spans a fairly deep, slow flowing creek.

The train locomotive’s engineer and conductor suddenly see two teenage boys with their fishing poles running down the track away from them, attempting to reach the end of the bridge.

Instinctively the engineer throws on the train’s emergency brakes and lays on the horn as he and the conductor hope that the two young men make it to the end of the bridge or jump off the bridge into the water about thirty feet below. The young men do not.

The train crew’s helpless feeling of knowing they could not have stopped begins to rush through their minds as the train comes to a stop about a half-mile from the end of bridge. The smell of hot metal from the hundreds of brake shoes used to bring the 73-car, 8,100-ton train to a stop hangs in the air despite the breeze.

Shaken by what they have witnessed, both crew members momentarily sit quietly in the locomotive cab with only the deep muffled sound of the 4,000-horsepower engine idling. Then the engineer picks up the locomotive’s two-way radio microphone while somberly pushing the emergency dispatcher tone button. He slowly tells the dispatcher that the locomotive has struck two people that were walking across a bridge. The engineer provides the train’s location and asks the dispatcher to call for an ambulance.

While the engineer is talking to the dispatcher, the conductor has jumped out of the locomotive cab and rushes back to where the two boys were last seen; a journey that no railroad employee wants to make.

Back at the train dispatching center, calls are made to emergency responders to provide immediate medical assistance to the injured. Calls also are made to Union Pacific’s Employee Assistance network to begin a process that will provide long-term assistance to the two train crew members who helplessly witnessed this tragedy.

The history of programs designed to help employees cope with traumatic events in the workplace reaches back to the 1970s. Scientific data indicated that if an employee’s mental health was impaired as the result of a violent or tragic workplace incident, the employee might be a safety liability to themselves or those around them.

The roots of Union Pacific’s support program reach to the mid-1970s when employees in North Platte, Neb., observed that one of their fellow employees involved in a tragic accident was having difficulty coping with day-to-day activities. The employees wanted to reach out to him, but didn’t know how. They were afraid of saying, or doing, something wrong and making the employee feel worse. To overcome their fear, they planted the seeds for what became the rail industry’s first Peer Support program.

Union Pacific Peer Support is just that, employees helping fellow employees understand, work through and resolve their feelings following a traumatic incident. Support volunteers have themselves endured a painful event and offer sincere friendship and support to co-workers who experience a disabling injury, family illness, death or other crisis.

Before being called to help a co-worker, each volunteer receives 12 hours of basic psychology training. They are also instructed in the proper way to identify situations that may require professional help, and how to refer a coworker to a health professional. The training is enhanced each year with 12-hour refresher workshops.

The railroad’s more than 500 Peer Support volunteers are spread out across Union Pacific’s 23 service units and on call 24/7 to contact affected employees as soon as appropriate, trying not to be intrusive. Volunteers know and understand that a person involved in a traumatic incident will need rest and privacy in addition to support.

Because each person is different, some may require only a day or so to work through post-incident effects, while others may not be able to come back to work for some time. A Peer Support volunteer stays in contact with co-worker to provide coping skills, and will reach out periodically to check on their progress.

Over the years, Union Pacific employees have come to learn that when a tragic event occurs, their Peer Support co-workers will be there to help them through the healing process. They know that Peer Support is not about helping them forget, it is about helping them cope.

For further information, contact Mark Davis (402) 544-5459.