Dealing with a workplace fatality

One of the key objectives of any company's health and safety policy is to minimise the potential for accidents, including fatal ones. But even at businesses with the most diligent of approaches to risk management, things can go wrong - possibly with tragic consequences.

Dealing with a death or serious injury in the workplace is, of course, an extremely challenging experience for any business owner or management team. But firms that have the right health and safety procedures in place will not only reduce the chances of accidents happening, they will also be well placed to deal with the fallout if anything does occur. 

Planning ahead

“Most businesses don't think about what they need to do in the event of a very serious accident, which is perhaps understandable,” says David Wark, health and safety consultant at Mentor. In many cases, there will be an investigation carried out by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) or the company's local authority - as well as, potentially, the police.

Wark adds: “Our aim is to set clients up with the right documentation, under a variety of different headings - what we call a health and safety management system.”    

The main elements of this documentation are the firm's health and safety policy, its approach to training and communications between senior staff and employees, and the likes of maintenance information and policies relating to accident management and response, the use of contractors, fire and company vehicles.

“Management also need to be able to demonstrate how these policies are applied, monitored and kept up to date with developments within the business,” Wark says. “As well as reducing risks in the first place, having this documentation in order means the firm has evidence of how they manage health and safety and meet their statutory obligations - so if something happened and the enforcement authorities were forced to investigate, they can quickly pull out the relevant documents.”

Be prepared

In the wake of an accident, enforcement officers may look for evidence of the training the victim has had, Wark says, or the maintenance record for a specific piece of equipment. “Equally, they may need to establish what the lines of communication were like in the company, or whether there had been adequate risk assessments carried out.”  

Business owners should also give some consideration to the other challenges they may face immediately after a serious injury or fatality, Wark adds. For instance, there may be media interest in the case, so thought needs to be given to how press enquiries will be handled.

At the same time, the needs of the victim's colleagues should also be taken into account: while larger organisations may have their own in-house counselling services, smaller firms will typically have to seek outside assistance - and the same is likely to be the case when it comes to legal advice.

“The ideal situation is where management and staff are working together to make sure that everyone goes home at night”  David Wark, health and safety consultant, Mentor

It's not unusual for businesses to find their operations disrupted after an accident. “There could be productivity losses due to inactivity during the investigation, for example,” Wark explains. “Firms may need to activate their emergency contingency plans if indeed the whole factory has been affected or if machines have gone down or need replacing - in the same way they might react to a flooding or fire, for example.”

Maintaining Standards

Alongside any repair costs, he adds, there's the chance that insurance premiums will increase. “There may also be the reputational impact to consider, as well as the cost of any further training that is deemed necessary by the authorities,” says Wark.

In legal terms, employers have a responsibility under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (often known as RIDDOR) to report deaths, injuries, diseases and “dangerous occurrences” - including near-misses - that take place at work or in connection with work to the HSE. The organisation's website has a guide as to what incidents should be reported.

“Business owners should also be aware of the potential consequences of breaches of health and safety law,” Wark adds. “They can be served with improvement notices by HSE or local authorities, as well as prohibition notices. Or it's possible the business can go down a more formal route where the HSE charges what is known as a 'fee for intervention', which costs £128 per hour for their time - which includes travel and writing up their documents.

“Lastly, there is the possibility of prosecution in the magistrates or crown court - and it's worth noting that the maximum fines have gone up in recent years.”

Ultimately, Wark says, the best approach is to have a robust and effective health and safety culture. “The ideal situation is where management and staff are working together to make sure everyone goes home at night. If the business is asking employees for their opinions about working practices, that can help create a sense of empowerment. 

“But it's up to management to reflect this culture in their own behaviour - so if they're walking through the warehouse without the PPE [personal protective equipment] that everyone else is expected to wear, that sends the wrong message.”

He concludes: “Health and safety is an ongoing, living topic that has to be reviewed over time. But having the right management systems in place will put you in a much stronger position should any problems or incidents arise.”

Mentor offers expert business advice on employment law and HR, health and safety, and environmental management.

Chris Torney


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