Workplace Fatalities - How to share tragic news
Updated: Jul 21
This week, the AIM president's thoughtless and callous comments following an employee's fatality at a work site in St. John, New Brunswick, should remind us of the responsibilities that go with the privilege of leadership and the importance of taking accountability. When asked who was responsible for safety at AIM, Black said, "You have to make a connection with the Lord and ask him. I'm not God. I don't decide."
AIM has a 40-year-lease for its scrap yard with the Port of Saint John, but since the signing, the site has been home to fires and dozens of loud explosions. There has been a lot of public interest in their activities and concerns for the appearance of a lack of safety protocols with "threats of legal action, and mayors, a member of Parliament, and community members have called for AIM's licence to be suspended." (CBC, July 2022)
When working with clients, I often ask them if they have a process for managing fatalities written into their crisis communications plans. Fatalities can happen in every workplace, including deaths from natural causes or an OHS incident. People become emotional, and finding the right words and understanding your corporate policies surrounding fatalities takes precious time. Do your homework in advance and be prepared to respond when (and if) needed. Develop a process and a template to guide you and your team.
Communicating about a fatality.
The highest level of leadership should be engaged when there is a death in the workplace. The most important thing for leaders to remember is that they are speaking about someone's loved one. Show that you care about what happened. Remember, this is not about you but the employee who died. You are being judged by how you manage these next steps. Your response and how you made people feel are what the public will remember about your company.
In every incident, there will be an investigation. We know this could result in changes to procedures, fines or stop work orders. Choose your words carefully, but show some responsibility in the process by sharing, "we are cooperating fully with the investigation team to determine why this happened." Legal teams will advise you not to take accountability, but that doesn't mean you cannot demonstrate remorse for the loss of an employee and let other employees and their families know that safety matters to you. Do not use this as an opportunity to point fingers or responsibility at the victim - take the high road here. Now is not the time to cast blame. Families are in mourning. Be respectful.
Be Prepared for the media.
This manufacturing site has had its host of headaches. They are known for acting in a manner the public (and public officials) have continued to question. Having their President speak to the media directly was likely their only option. But before you go on camera, prepare for the media and their questions.
Consider reading from a prepared statement to get the details right!
Lead with a sympathy message and show compassion with your delivery
Take responsibility that a fatality happened on your work site and demonstrate your cooperation with investigators
Never release a fatality's name without confirming that the Next of Kin (NOK) has been notified. More than likely, this will be done by local law enforcement officials. Confirm with the family before sharing any public information in your statements. Also, do not release the name of an injured individual (FOIP concerns) as you may inhibit the chances of a person getting another job if their injuries are publicized and their name is associated with a workplace incident. Lastly, ensure your company media policy dictates what can and cannot be shared on employees' personal social media pages.
Safety is not a program - it's a culture.
I worked for Dow Canada in the petrochemical industry for over eight years, and I learned firsthand how the safety culture needs to be embraced by every employee, starting with leadership. It is ingrained in every facet of the company. A minor first aid or near miss is as essential as a chemical release because, if you have challenges enforcing the protocols with a minor incident, you never will manage a major one that could have catastrophic circumstances. Embracing a safety culture is much more than a few posters in the lunch room and a weekly safety meeting.
Employee safety is everyone's responsibility.
Creating an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing concerns, reporting near-miss situations, and talking openly about policies and procedures is vital. Everyone plays a role in ensuring employees go home safely to their families daily. This understanding starts at the top with leaders who know that a safe work environment brings a higher ROI through productivity and trickles down to the summer student and contractor. But, it also has to go from the ground up with employees making recommendations, sharing safety concerns and promoting safety on site. Safety is a team effort.
There is always room for improvement. Every fatality, accident or near miss offers an opportunity to determine the incident's root cause. Investigations allow new eyes to review procedures and if you can improve them. Learning from these incidents to avoid future deaths and incidents has to be part of the management process. The willingness to learn from mistakes and share these outcomes with other industries is how we create safer workplaces.
The loss of a fellow employee can have devastating results on the morale and mindset of your workforce. Create an opportunity to speak to your employees (in person is always best if possible) and with the approval of the family, tell them what you know as far as funeral services, memorial funds and any company initiatives. Use this opportunity to share what you're stating publicly. Reinforce that this tragedy will bring about an investigation to improve workplace safety. People are more productive when they come to a workplace they know is doing everything possible to get them home safely to their families.