Lessons learned in handling a personnel crisis from those who have experienced them.
By Mindi Zissman
Editor’s Note: All situations and advice are real, but those who shared their personal experiences are not named to protect their privacy.
Injuries and other adverse personnel situations are inevitable in any workplace. Most are minor, but when they are significant, the effect on the company, management, employees, customers and the community has lasting consequences – particularly if the situation is not handled properly.
Preparing for the worst is not fun and, as a result, many owners and managers abdicate and hope for the best. This leaves many unprepared when the unexpected does occur. To ensure this does not happen to you, it’s important to have written plans and policies and to know who you will contact in a crisis. It is also helpful to know who among your network of peers may be able to provide advice based on their experiences.
It happens fast
If a personnel crisis does occur in your company, every situation is different and must be handled accordingly. But one constant is they happen fast. The incidences described here are real, but the names have been omitted due to the sensitive nature of the situations.
It was late Friday afternoon at a precast plant – an optimistic time when everyone is excited for the weekend ahead – when a piece of concrete fell on an employee, leading to his death.
“As the manager, it’s the worst possible thing that could happen,” said the plant owner. “When it happened to us, it was our worst day ever. At first, all we could think was, ‘What do we do?’”
The owner called emergency services immediately, who called OSHA. Both were on hand quickly.
“After it happened, we kept everyone in a separate area of the plant and talked to everyone before they left to make sure they were ok,” he said. “We made sure we had current contact numbers. We had no idea if we’d be shutting down for a day, a week, a year or more.”
Next, he contacted a labor and employment attorney, who helped answer questions and dispel myths.
“We were numb from the accident,” the plant owner said. “You don’t think of what you should do, what you should say and what your rights are. helped us think of things we didn’t, like a media response and what our rights were with OSHA.”
An attorney can help slow your mind, organize your thoughts and set forth a plan of action for the immediate future.
“Once an incident happens, the dominos fall very fast and you don’t have time to be reaching out to others for resources,” said the attorney the company used, who specializes in workplace occupational safety and health. “When it happens, it becomes a crisis management situation.”
Rely on the experts
After calling emergency services, contacting an attorney helps keep your investigation of the accident under the attorney-client privilege. The attorney can also serve as a guide during the OSHA inspection. For example, OSHA will ask for specific information and documentation. You’ll need to know what you’re obligated to provide by law, and what you can opt to supply voluntarily.
“If I, as your lawyer, tell you to do an investigation – take pictures, interview witnesses, do a root cause analysis – that becomes my investigation, and its findings and conclusions are protected by the attorney-client relationship and not discoverable,” the attorney said. “If you do an accident investigation on your own, OSHA investigators or plaintiffs’ attorneys and any other third-party in litigation will be able to access it and all the conclusions you draw. They can put you under oath and ask you to answer their questions.”
According to the attorney, you also need to contact OSHA. Under federal law, after an amputation, hospitalization for treatment (not just observation) or loss of an eye, OSHA must be contacted within 24 hours. When there’s a fatality, the timeline decreases to eight hours. In some cases of serious injury or fatality, emergency services will contact OSHA. But, the legal obligation is yours. Make sure you call, even if you know or suspect someone else already has.
When OSHA comes, plant management will answer basic questions, including the time of the accident and the nature of the injury. If OSHA asks a question such as how the accident could have been prevented, for example, having counsel is critical as your answers could incriminate you or lead to further plant investigation.
“You want to treat the OSHA compliance officer kindly and with respect, but you also want to take and maintain control of the OSHA inspection,” the attorney said. “If they show up because of a fatality, they have the right to inspect the accident, not to walk through your facility and interview everyone there on any topic. The uninformed employer lets them walk around and talk to anyone about anything.
“This opens the door to citations for all sorts of things around the plant having nothing to do with the fatality or catastrophe.”
In some cases, even though OSHA may be on-site to investigate a serious or fatal accident, the inspector may also have a legal basis for looking for, or asking questions about, other issues in the plant. You’ll want to consult your attorney before allowing an expanded inspection or answering the inspector’s additional questions. For example, after months of inspecting the fatality cited above, OSHA handed down four citations. Three of the four had nothing to do with the accident.
Another critical expert you want to have on hand is a grief counselor.
“After the accident, the police chief gave us the number of a local counselor who came out and talked to the managers that night, and addressed the staff the next morning,” the precaster said. “In hindsight, it was the best thing we did. We had everyone come in, whether they were involved or not.
“He sat everyone in a room and let them speak freely, without any managers there. Later, they called the managers in and it went on for another couple of hours. We offered additional, individual counseling after for those that wanted it.”
The precaster found having a grief counselor so important that the plant has signed an annual contract with the counselor, who is now accessible to anyone going through any issue.
Lastly, if you have peers who have experienced a similar situation, their advice or even just their understanding and having someone to talk with can help with coping.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
It’s imperative to establish a channel for open, honest communication immediately post-accident. You need to know how your employees are doing and what they are feeling, and they need to hear from you as well. It’s important to dispel any misinformation that may be spreading and make it clear you are there for them.
“We made sure everyone in the company knew what happened so incorrect information wasn’t floating around out there,” the precaster said. “We called a meeting and told them right away what happened. They knew this guy, and they knew he was killed doing what they do every day.”
Don’t be caught flat-footed
A thorough plan for a crisis can’t be developed in one day. It requires significant thought, input and buy-in from many and likely the advice of an expert.
“Having an emergency response program that anticipates something like this happening, as you would for a tornado or other natural disaster, is a must,” the attorney said.
Create a list of emergency numbers to call. On that list, have the name and number of a trusted labor and employment attorney and consider reaching out to the attorney to establish a relationship. Also on that list should be a grief counselor who can come immediately to talk to staff. Again, a prior or ongoing relationship is a consideration.
Document a policy for responding to the media and letting family members know about an accident. Prepare a simple media response that can be adapted as necessary. Maintain a contract with a company that can come in and take care of the immediate, physical needs of the plant as well, if needed.
You should also train employees that in the event of a serious accident, all plant rules still apply. If an accident does occur, let them know in advance they should refrain from taking pictures or making calls, or at least check with the plant manager before doing so.
There’s no way to anticipate an accident, but it’s beneficial to be as prepared as possible for an event you hope never happens. At the very least, the right training and plan will minimize trauma and help plant managers and employees mobilize during and after the accident. Such preparedness can prevent an accident from becoming a disaster.
Mindi Zissman is a Chicago, Ill.-based freelance writer who has covered the AEC industry, commercial liability and health care for more than 15 years.