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International Stress Awareness Day - Working Safely on a COMAH Site by ACS MD, Emma Willey

I’ve said a few times how much I enjoy working on a COMAH (Control of Major Accident Hazards) site but sometimes there’s an event whilst working that really brings it home to you how much you rely on those around you to be aware of and deal with unexpected hazards.

This was starkly brought home to me whilst we were working at significant height recently. Our job was to go to the top of the tower, do a survey, take some samples, come back down. Simple enough job. My job was to audit the surveyors doing the works. By the time we got to the 6th flight of steps, we were all deliberately keeping our chins at 90’ to our bodies so that we could not accidentally look down through the steps to the ground receding beneath us.

We plodded on up the steps to the very top, some 11 storeys up in the air. Very secure platform but it gives you butterflies nonetheless! When we got to the top of the steps and stopped, I felt all the hairs on the back of my neck raising and a true creep of horror down my spine. A bit confused as to why I was feeling this way, I halted completely and gripped onto the rail. Turning around I looked directly at an open Bay with a thin line marking the difference between sea and sky and was instantly transported to a different place entirely. I started to relive my experience of the 2004 Boxing Day Earthquake and Tsunami … but this time I wasn’t on the sand feeling the vibrations, I was 11 flights up in the air. Fortunately, my colleagues quickly realised that something was wrong – very wrong – and came to help. If it hadn’t been for one of them being familiar with mental health issues and instantly taking on the role of support and ‘anchor’, talking to me, letting me verbalise what was happening, not rushing me but definitely helping me to come back to this world, it could have been a very difficult situation indeed.

Thankfully I was able to recover, calm myself and eventually even carry out the audit but the reason I was able to do it was because my staff were observant, calm, skilled and able to adapt to the unexpected safety issue of a PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) flashback episode. We have done a full evaluation of what triggered it (the dull vibration of the works resembling an earthquake combined with the image of the bay with the line of water in the distance) and I now know to be aware of those triggers on this site but also other sites that I visit.

The great thing about being able to manage PTSD is knowing what your triggers are so that you can deal with them the second you feel them, before they have time to take over. We had a talk that afternoon with all staff that will come into contact with me on this site to let them know what happened, what the trigger was, how to help me if it happens again and to mark down on the risk assessment sheet ‘background vibration may trigger Emma’ for the jobs this may apply to.

I’m now organising a full training session for all site staff on dealing with an unexpected mental health issue and specifically Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, on a working site. Now I know I have a trigger, I don’t expect it to be a problem in the future, but it’s thanks to a great team and a respectful knowledge of working with long term stress that I’m able to say that and to continue to move forward in a professional manner on a COMAH site.

ACS Managing Director,

Emma Willey

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