Operator Safety isn’t about Installing Shields, it’s about Training Operators in Post-War Approaches to Dealing with a Traumatized Public


In 2011, Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP), sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration, conducted a study to discover the practices within ?the industry that are used to protect bus operators from assaults. This study ?also reviewed the causes of passenger violence toward operators, and which protection practices were most effective in lowering the risks. Contrary to what many operators and their unions continuously request, installing plastic barriers between the operator and his passengers is not an effective safety practice. Feelings of claustrophobia and isolation only contribute to an operator’s inability to connect with his passengers.

According to TCRP, operator trainings are considered by transit agencies to be among the most successful measures against attacks. In particular, transit agencies reported to TCRP, “that a number of incidents may have been prevented through a change in the operator’s actions, words or demeanor. Therefore, customer service, conflict mitigation and diversity training are believed to be very effective measures against assault.”

Educating operators is not a new concept. Workforce development training programs increasingly include information on conflict, and how to deal with difficult customers. However, these trainings often fail for several reasons:

  1. The content isn’t relevant to participants’ lives.
  2. Participants feel that their real-world expertise is dismissed in favor of the instructor’s expertise.
  3. The training is delivered in a top-down fashion (seminar structure), and participants mentally check out. (The average attention span of an adult who is listening to a lecture is fifteen minutes.)
  4. Participants learn new skills, but haven’t changed their attitudes enough to believe the new skills are worth incorporating into their behaviors.

When instructing transit workers, the top two reasons for failed trainings are particularly relevant. Because transit workers experience and witness unprecedented customer violence, and customer mental health and poverty issues, trainers who don’t have real-world experience regarding these issues, will minimize their gravity and inadequately address their impact on the transit worker.

The decline of healthy, sustainable urban communities in our nation is evident in the statistics. In 2010, the National Urban League published a report stating that urban youth experience violence at a 34 percent higher rate than their suburban counterparts and 75 percent more than youth living in rural areas.

Certainly, in many of our American cities the evidence of violence and poverty is incontrovertible. For instance, in the city of Philadelphia, certain neighborhoods have been denied social services, lack decent educational institutions and are plagued by an epidemic of drug addiction and community violence. According to the 2010 United States Census, in the 1st District ?of Philadelphia, child poverty has risen to 40 percent. This number reflects a larger problem in our cities across the nation. A disproportionate number of youth are growing up hungry, witnessing and experiencing community violence and are robbed of the social supports children and youth receive in the suburbs.

In addition, domestic violence in rural, suburban and urban areas continues to be a national epidemic. Conservative estimates indicate that one in four girls and one in six boys are victims of sexual abuse. Sadly, these numbers reflect a growing incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex trauma disorder among young people.

The effects of trauma are not only an individual psychological problem for those who struggle with traumatic history the entire community is impacted. For example, 80 percent of people who suffer with drug and alcohol addiction carry a history of trauma. This link points to the probability that a majority of drug and alcohol abuse begins with the abuser self-medicating the physiological and psychological symptoms of PTSD and complex trauma disorder.

Transit workers aren’t just dealing with difficult customers, they’re dealing with traumatized customers. And customers are not the only group potentially carrying the symptoms of trauma. Transit workers who’ve been assaulted in the past are likely to continue to be effected. Human beings carry their personal and family history with them and express that history through behavior. One's wounds and fears inform one's beliefs, the ability to trust others, the power to rebound and the skills to survive. Experiencing multiple traumas and chronic trauma make all of these things more challenging.

At the international level where war and violent conflict has occurred, third-party interveners, who provide training and support for these shattered communities, understand that specific and careful intervention is necessary. Post-war reconstruction approaches to healing communities include:

  • Education regarding the physiological effects of trauma on the brain
  • Examination of one's own cultural identity through reflective practices
  • Skill building for basic counseling tools
  • Circle processes rather than top-down education
  • Sociodrama and small group discussions which allow participants to re-humanize themselves and the customer

As some neighborhoods in American cities mirror areas across the world gripped by war and extreme violence, it makes sense to train frontline transit workers in post-war reconstruction approaches to dealing with a traumatized customer population. Dealing with potentially violent passengers requires participants to gain knowledge of the causes of violence from the psycho/social perspective and address their own biases, triggers and conflict patterns, which often contribute to negative passenger interactions. Trainings designed to invite each participant to understand himself and reawaken his compassion for customers living in the margins will shift participants’ behaviors in ways that traditional workforce development cannot.

Charlotte DiBartolomeo, M.A.C.T., is C.E.O of Red Kite Project and earned her master’s in conflict transformation with a specialty in intercultural service, leadership & management from The School for International Training.

Red Kite Project is presently contracted by Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority to teach conflict de-escalation to frontline operators and transformational leadership to their management.