Why every employer should know how to handle a workplace fatality
“A goal without a plan is just a wish,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of “The Little Prince.” In the midst of the pandemic, employers now more than ever need a plan in case an employee or contractor dies at the workplace.
Managers may have hope for the best but they still need to prepare for the worst. The latest statistics from OSHA report 5,250 workers died on the job in 2018—more than 14 deaths per day or about 100 per week on average. Those fatalities include 621 independent workers or contractors.
Every employer has a responsibility to provide for a safe workplace. If workers are being placed at risk because they provide an essential service, then employers need to take care of them if they get sick. They also need plans in place in case the worker dies.
The coronavirus outbreak exacerbates the problem. Employers must consider the fact that employees or contractors could infect co-workers—and some may die. Executives need to review their company policies and plans for dealing with workplace death—regardless of how it happens or who may be to blame.
A company’s workplace fatality plan should provide clear directions in the following four areas:
- Immediate steps after a worker’s death
- Contact first responders.
- Capture pertinent details for an investigative file.
- Notify OSHA. Any hazardous elements considered an immediate danger to life and health at the workplace should be removed. Secure the rest of the area for investigation and remove only after receiving authorization from authorities.
- Handling potential or perceived negligence
- Have any equipment connected to the death be inspected by a third-party expert. The equipment’s manufacturer should be contacted within 14 days.
- Protect the area so it isn’t disturbed. Only after getting authorization from authorities, move the equipment from the work area so investigations by OSHA and others doesn’t disrupt work.
- Using OSHA guidelines, conduct drug tests on all employees.
- Managing OSHA and insurance
- Protocols should be in place to contact insurance companies and workers’ compensation carriers.
- Make sure managers and employees are prepared for investigative interviews and understand their legal rights. Set aside a neutral place for all interviews.
- Do not destroy any documents during the investigation and submit a Freedom of Information request for all investigative files of first responders.
- Develop a specific path to lead the OSHA official on so they only see the incident site and have minimal exposure to the rest of the facility.
- Helping the deceased employee’s family
- Assign a caring and mature employee to notify the deceased worker’s family in person and provide them with contact information.
- Allow employees to attend the funeral. First line managers, including two C-Level executives, should attend the services if possible.
Keep in mind, OSHA can sanction companies for health and safety violations, lapsed or absence of documentation or any general negligence by employees or management, with fines that can total $129,336.
Companies can avoid fines by keeping track of certifications, training logs, audits and other pertinent records—including those related to contractors. Managers have traditionally kept this information on spreadsheets and physical files, making it difficult to ensure all records are up-to-date.
Companies should consider digitization to make sure these critical records are online or on a computer. A recent study sponsored by Avetta and EHS Daily found 11% of those polled shared they did not receive a citation or fine because they had proof of sufficient audits for employees and contractors.
Avetta also published a white paper with some of the advice I am including here, plus more detailed information on the steps that should be taken to be prepared for a workplace fatality.
The situation now is even more complicated because outside the healthcare industry, the federal government doesn’t have workplace regulations regarding a pandemic or even the flu. However, I would encourage employers to have a plan that requires doing more, not less when dealing with a workplace fatality.
Finally, employers should be proactive and make sure their goal is always to do the right thing. Doing the right thing is a simple approach that safeguards the company and protects employees during good times and bad.