Business leaders urged to be ‘human’ when faced with death or serious injury in the workplace

By Jamie Robinson*
Friday, 03 October, 2008

Responding to death or serious injury in the workplace with a compassionate and ‘human’ approach is vital to minimising harm and protecting a company’s reputation and employee relations.

If someone has died or been seriously injured, it is important to acknowledge that something has obviously gone terribly wrong while not allocating responsibility. There is a significant difference between being compassionate as an employer and admitting liability or culpability.

With approximately 140,000 injuries and 2500 deaths occurring in Australian workplaces each year, employers must be prepared to respond with due process and sincere care.

Employers faced with the sudden consequences of such an incident are sometimes railroaded into saying nothing and not sensitively managing the victim or the victim’s family. Even the simple act of how the incident is communicated to the victim’s family can have significant ramifications for companies and yet is so often extremely mismanaged.

Whether it was an accident or whether someone and/or the company are directly to blame will come out through a thorough and well-planned investigation. In the meantime, it will often serve a company better overall to err on the side of being empathic and compassionate, which does not necessarily involve admitting responsibility.

When a serious accident happens, it is natural for those in leadership to feel guilt and wonder what they could have done differently to prevent it. Alternatively, some employers shut down and avoid communicating.

Whatever the natural reaction is, my advice to business leaders and managers in these circumstances is that it is possible to protect your company’s interests well while also showing compassion and ‘being human’ in their response, most importantly to the victim’s family.

Response plans vital

Accidents can happen even when companies have been diligent in workplace safety. It is essential for companies to plan how they would handle the situation in the most appropriate, responsible and sensitive way.

Not only are the direct costs (workers compensation, fines, etc) of significant incidents and death in the workplace important to consider, but the impact of mismanagement on the company’s reputation, ability to attract staff and employee relations (including morale and productivity) can also be devastating.

Companies must have strong, structured and sensitive response plans in place as a last line of defence. If something goes wrong and someone is injured or killed in the workplace and the company does not have a proper response plan in place, management will very quickly be forced to make major decisions under considerable pressure and in sub-optimal circumstances.

Companies caught unprepared risk making rushed and poor decisions as they face urgent and often conflicting advice and demands from insurers, lawyers, their management team, employees, the media and the community at large.

Employers should ask themselves the following question: If an employee was killed in an accident today, could I answer the following questions:

  • Which external authorities must be notified of the death and in what timeframe?
  • Who in your organisation should be told? When? Why?
  • Whose job is it to notify the next of kin of the deceased? What message do you want to convey? Who at your organisation would do this?
  • Who is obliged to answer questions asked by police or industrial inspectors? Who in your organisation would answer such questions? What is the extent of your organisation’s obligation to assist an investigation?
  • What procedures should be put in place for co-workers and others who have witnessed or were involved in the incident? When should this be done?

All of these questions should be outlined and answered in a comprehensive response plan, so that the organisation can act quickly if a death or serious injury were to occur.

The potential for fines and compensation are far outweighed by the loss of life and reputation caused by a lack of preparedness in OHS procedures and response plans. 

*Jamie Robinson is a partner at Harmers Workplace Lawyers.


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