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PROJECT FATALITY: NOW WHAT? (Part Two)

PART TWO: Implementing Your Fatality Response Plan

This is the second of a multi-part series regarding project fatalities and related considerations for construction companies.

Authored by Attorney Neil S. Lowenstein, nlowenstein@vanblacklaw.com; 757-446-8672

Besides dealing with those regulatory requirements, employers also have the practicalities of dealing with multiple other aspects of the incident. Generally, the first action is to address the incident itself, including providing necessary first aid response for anyone injured. Emergency Medical Services, or as appropriate police and fire personnel, should be promptly contacted. Then, once the situation is stable, field personnel should know to notify appropriate home office personnel of the incident. Typically, management will want to further contact in-house or company counsel to advise and assist with the company’s response to the incident.

Information flows very quickly after a serious incident. Company leaders want to be at the forefront of informational flow; avoiding the onslaught of rumor mill, and proactively dealing with both family members and the company’s workforce at the jobsite and company-wide. Fatalities will bring a temporary stop to project work, but as daunting and upsetting as fatalities are, the construction still needs to continue. As such, employers not only need to promptly assess the incident’s cause to avoid further incidents at the jobsite; but, also, to maintain progress at that and all jobsites, including by helping facilitate employee confidence with safety and management. 

 Company managers need to understand that the entire workforce can be adversely affected by a fatality, and not just those workers involved in or witnessing the incident. Worker judgment often becomes distorted by serious incidents, leading in turn to negative morale, concentration lapses, and other negative effects both at the affected jobsite and company-wide. Company management, field and office, needs to be on the lookout for post-incident stress, and as needed consider providing counseling services for employees and families. Timely updates to project employees are helpful, and appreciated, in reducing overall project stress and maintaining the level of employee cooperation and focus necessary for finishing the project, and avoid negative impact to company business operations more generally.

Additionally, fatalities garner public attention, including in particular media attention. Successfully dealing with the media takes thoughtful preparation. Generally, companies should appoint a single spokesperson with responsibility for dealing with all media communications. Everyone, at all levels, should know who the media spokesperson is so they can readily refer communications to that person, and that person alone. The designated media spokesperson will ideally be trained in media management, should develop a prepared statement and avoid off-the-cuff responses. Focus in dealing with the media should be on known facts only, and never speculation. Typically, company counsel will participate in developing the media message since whatever is relayed to or in the media may have longer term implications with respect to liability associated with the incident. While often used, the common response of “no comment” should be avoided, and instead the media opportunity used to help you relay a positive message relaying to the public and your workforce such things as confirming the company has taken the incident seriously, is fully investigating the incident, and is doing all possible to avoid incident recurrence. 

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