A strong call to minimise risk

Last spring, we wrote about the tougher sentencing regime that was being adopted by the Courts when they consider fatal accidents that occur in the workplace.

In a subsequent article, we explained that this tougher approach has spread to other Health & Safety breaches.

The fact that the Courts are taking a stronger line against both companies and individual directors and senior employees emphasises the need for senior management to take steps to minimise the risk of accidents and to create safer working environments in their businesses.  However, other issues arise from this as a consequence.

One thing that can be overlooked when a tragedy occurs and a life is lost is the human aspect of such an occurrence. 

Clearly the loss of an individual in an accident at work will have devastating consequences on the family, friends and workmates of that person.

An investigation into a fatal accident at work will move swiftly and although it is impossible to plan for all eventualities, having a plan and support network in place in the event of such a tragedy is a vital part of risk management and prudent business planning.

Sensitive handling

There may be witnesses who worked closely with the deceased person who saw the accident and who will be traumatised and need support.  A sudden death at work will need to be handled with sensitivity.

Questions will arise:

  • Will those people need time off work to recover?
  • Should counselling be provided for them?
  • Who within the organisation is best placed to handle these matters: a work colleague; Human Resources; or a senior member of the management team?

Breaking the news to other family members will also need to be handled sympathetically.  Collecting together an employee’s personal effects and making arrangements (e.g. for their car to be collected from the company’s premises) will need to be handled with care.

An enormous amount of goodwill can be generated if the human aspects are handled sensitively and with respect.

Witness Statements

As well as dealing with the human aspects of an investigation, the investigation itself will be fast moving.

A death at work will initially result in a criminal investigation that will be conducted by the Police.  They will want to take statements from any witnesses as well as members of the company who are responsible for health and safety matters and senior management. 

You will need to consider what support (legal and otherwise) those people will need.  Decisions will need to be made as to whether those individuals will require legal advice and, if so, whether one firm of solicitors can advise all the witnesses or whether some should be separately advised (for example in the event of an actual or potential conflict of interest).

Training and Documents

Have your staff been properly trained and are all your records and documents up to date and safely retained?

If a fatal accident occurs, the Police/HSE will want all relevant documentation (including electronic data).  If, for example, the death was caused by a piece of machinery, in addition to the Accident Report, other relevant documents may include contractual documents relating to the equipment; whether there had been previous problems with it; any relevant materials, e.g. emails or texts relating to the equipment and the working practices of the company, as well as training manuals and records.

Media

If an accident occurs in the workplace, that results in death or serious injury, this often results in articles appearing in the local or national press.   Businesses should think about who will be responsible for dealing with the media and who, if any one, will give statements to the press on behalf of the company.  What experience does that person have of dealing with the press and do they require any training in this regard? 

Having a plan in place to deal with such eventualities is an important consideration.

Pre-Planning

We will be pleased to discuss with our clients the matters which a company or organisation should consider both to minimise risk and the consequences if a major incident occurs.

The points referred to above cover some of the issues that will arise when a major incident occurs in the workplace.  Each case will have its own specific circumstances.  However, detailed planning for such an occurrence will invariably pay dividends in the long run.

About the authors

Andrew Spooner Consultant

Andrew specialises in commercial disputes including complex claims for breach of contract and negligence – particularly in the manufacturing and engineering industries. He has acted in shareholder disputes and other claims arising out of corporate transactions and partnership disputes, for solicitors, doctors, surveyors, accountants and farmers. He has particular expertise in defending and obtaining injunctions involving senior employees (involving breaches of covenant and issues of confidentiality). He has successfully obtained and supervised Search & Seizure Orders. He also acts in proceedings brought by regulatory bodies including the Health & Safety Executive, Trading Standards and Environment Agency.

Tariva Thomas Associate

Tariva is a member of the Tax and Financial Services Litigation team dealing with disputes relating to investments, tax avoidance schemes and pensions. Tariva advises corporates, individuals, financial institutions and FCA regulated firms.