June 22, 2021

How to navigate fatal workplace incidents

A death at your workplace is the most devastating thing you can imagine, and though none of us want to think about it, it’s important to plan for the worst day. One worker dies every three to four days in Colorado, and Pinnacol receives about 30 such claims each year. 

Employee deaths can devastate your workplace. You and your workers may experience an emotional and/or physical toll from the fatality, whether it happened due to a workplace accident or employee health crisis. 

Preparing an easily implemented response plan in advance can help. You may lack the emotional or physical capacity to focus after a tragic event. Having an existing plan to refer to ensures you can still care for your workers by answering their questions and providing compassionate support. 

Use these eight steps to get started. 

1.   Plan what to do immediately after a workplace death

Steps you should take include:

2.   Choose and train your emergency contacts in advance

You need three primary contacts: 

  1. Someone responsible for talking to the police and other outside sources. 
  2. Someone that can speak to employees and the worker’s family.
  3. Someone that handles media inquiries. 

Choose people who can act compassionately and tactfully, and train them in best practices for these responses. 

A manager, human resources employee or business owner may be a good choice for any role. Depending on the size and complexity of your business, one person could handle all three roles. 

3.   Talk to family members

Prioritize reaching out to the worker's family members. During this terrible time, they need your sensitive support. Although a designated employee will be the family's primary contact, the business owner and/or other managers should visit the family in person. Listen to everything they tell you; they may just need to grieve. You might also discuss establishing a memorial fund for the worker’s spouse or children. 

4.   Keep employees informed after a fatal injury at work

Be honest with your employees while showing empathy for everyone’s feelings at this hard time. Provide workers with comprehensive and timely updates. Let them know what you're doing, any expected workplace disruptions, and how you'll prevent future fatal incidents at work.

5.   Prepare for media calls

In every media interaction, display compassion for those hurt or killed. Be honest with the media and present your story truthfully as you would like it to be told. 

Avoid saying “no comment,” and be ready to apologize or issue public statements on your website or social media channels when warranted.   

Provide your media contacts with timely updates. Emphasize the steps your business is taking to address concerns related to the fatality. 

6.   Prepare for an OSHA inspection

Secure the area and establish a primary contact for the agency. Conduct your own investigation in advance of OSHA’s arrival by:  

  • Identifying and interviewing witnesses. 
  • Taking photographs and downloading security video. 
  • Gathering details about what led to the incident. 
  • Reviewing your safety records and training manuals.  

7.   Show sensitivity to employee grief

A death in the workplace causes trauma. Your employees need time to process and grieve the death of their co-worker, whether they worked closely or not. Offer them time off and counseling services. If you have an employee assistance program, include those details in your crisis response plan. Contact Pinnacol to determine if your policy includes counseling benefits.

8.   Be compassionate, honest and responsive

Strive to be candid and communicate quickly. Demonstrate compassion, whether you speak with the media, a group of employees or the deceased worker’s family. Be thorough when gathering information to prevent future fatalities but also be sympathetic. Don't hide bad news or let your employees learn about things through the media. Tell them what's happening right away, and be upfront about potential changes.

For more guidance for putting together a plan to respond to fatal accidents at work, download Pinnacol Assurance's Employer's Guide to Fatal Accidents. You can also order a hard copy of the guide in English or Spanish, or both. If you’d like to speak with a safety consultant, contact safetyoncall@pinnacol.com.