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Volume: 1997-3

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
Volume : 1997-3

Douglas Paton, Department of Psychology, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand. Phone +64 6 350-4118 Fax +64 6 350-5673 Email: D.Paton@massey.ac.nz

Volume : 1997-3

Douglas Paton

Within progressively more complex societies, technological and human-made disasters are likely to increase in incidence. The immediacy of these catastrophic events often hides the complexity of their causation and the time frame within which their origins must be conceptualised. Issac, using the 1995 Cave Creek disaster as an illustrative example, draws upon the work of Reason (1990) to explore the manner in which the potential for organisational systems failure can develop over a period of several years and then interact at one point in time with local factors to create a mix of conditions that can culminate in disaster. While this model provides a basis for planning and implementing disaster reduction initiatives, Issac's analysis is also informative in drawing attention for the need to move away from a focus on proximal conditions and rely more on the careful analysis of organisational activities that develop over a longer time frame if we are to develop a comprehensive understanding of the causation of technological disasters. The acceptance of a more prominent role for diverse organisational systems and practices, and not just those directly concerned with health and safety, in creating a safer environment, together with the comprehensive application of the model, will facilitate the exercising of control of the causes of at least some technological disasters.

While a similar measure of control cannot be exercised over the hazard that is the focus of the next paper, Hurnen and McClure discuss the use of attribution theory to identify factors that influence the manner in which community members understand earthquake damage and act to minimise its personal consequences. By comparing citizens' knowledge about damage preventability with that of expert sources, knowledge gaps and misconceptions can be identified and used to frame information and educational programmes. Hurnen and McClure, in discussing the theoretical implications of their findings, provide a model that can be adapted to promote understanding of general hazard activity and to develop preventative programmes to facilitate exercising control over the effects of hazard activity.

When disasters do occur, the ensuing response calls upon the services of the members of several professions. Involvement in this capacity can result in the experience of traumatic stress reactions. Given the importance of this role, considerable attention has been directed towards understanding the nature of these reactions and exploring what can be done to protect well-being and assist coping efforts. Massam and Moran enter this debate by exploring the role of humour as a coping strategy and discuss how it can act to ameliorate distress and promote well-being, but under certain conditions reflect the operation of denial processes. Their analysis posts a warning about the manner in which the efficacy of any coping strategy is defined. Massam and Moran's discussion is interesting in another respect. It goes beyond exploring the use of this strategy is isolation and discusses its relationship to other organisational processes. This point reflects the growing acceptance of work-related traumatic stress reactions as reflecting an interaction between an event, the person and the organisational context within which the experience occurs. In this respect, there are interesting parallels between their arguments and those presented by Issac.

Many of those who respond to disaster, or whose professional role involves exposure to traumatic incidents, can encounter several such experiences over the course of their career. Although long-term exposure to emotionally challenging professional demands has attracted attention, this work has focused predominantly on military groups. Violanti draws upon this work and applies it to police officers. He describes the implications of this aspect of their work by emphasising its implications for addictive behaviour and residual effects, both of which only appear if behaviour is observed over a prolonged period. A predominant research focus on acute episodes tends to obscure the complexity and persistence of traumatic stress reactivity. In addition to extending its influence beyond the person directly involved, most notably to encompass family members, it is interesting to note the relative independence between traumatic work and traumatic reactivity. The residual stress hypothesis discussed by Violanti describes the persistence of effects well beyond the point of separation for hazardous duties. He also discusses the relationship between these patterns of reactivity and the organisational context within which they occur and argues for the development of special support strategies and the need for their implementation during and beyond the period of employment.

The papers presented in this volume represent contributions from diverse professions and the applicability of theoretical constructs to understand complex phenomena and to frame interventions for their management. A number of themes emerge for these papers.

One relates to the time frame within which disaster and trauma phenomena should be considered. Snap-shot and cross-sectional studies will fail to capture the complexity of the salient issues and alternative methodologies must be utilised. The possibility of repeated exposure to disasters and the continuous influence of social and organisational variables on causality emphasises the need for comprehensive analysis conducted over time. Adopting a longitudinal approach has a number of implications for research. Two features of research in this field require special attention. The design of true experiments is virtually precluded on ethical grounds. Thus the research designs will almost always be quasi-experimental or "natural experiments" and the analysis of change-scores will have to cope with regression effects and other technical problems. The use of single-indicator measures and single-group, pretest-posttest designs cannot answer questions about change. More than two waves of data must be collected for effective measurement of change. One or more groups can be followed through the sequence of events. When more than one group is used they can be studied in parallel, as in the case of comparison designs, or studied as lagged cohorts. The latter represents a superior method for studying the aetiology of disaster stress.

The content of these papers also reflect the growing awareness that the causation of disaster and traumatic stress phenomena can best be understood in terms of the complex interaction between individuals, groups, organisations and disasters. Conducting analyses of these complex patterns, and implementing the interventions that ensue from them, will require a multi-disciplinary approach. For example, Isaac's paper signals a role for collaboration between administrative science, health and safety and organisational psychology and Hurnen and McClure's work provides a context for the fruitful interaction between physical and social scientists. It is hoped that these opportunities can be capitalised upon, contribute to promoting comprehensive understanding of disaster and trauma phenomena, and facilitate the development of holistic and effective interventions.


Douglas Paton © 1997. The author assign to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.
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