The High Cost of Workplace Tragedies: Leading Employees Through Crisis

April 16, 2008
It can happen here. The recent crane accidents have emphasized this sad truth.

Every day, construction workers leave home unaware that their next shift will include a co-worker‘s death or serious injury. While they may be grateful for their own physical safety, the psychological outcomes of such events can be difficult for them and their workgroups. Tragedy also is expensive, and construction companies face a long list of potential financial costs as well. Quality, safety and the ability to meet crucial deadlines are in jeopardy when a tragedy occurs.

Trust in leadership and a desirable corporate culture also are at risk. In retrospect, construction leaders often will pinpoint a workplace tragedy as a pivotal point for the ongoing productivity of their work teams. Some identify how the incident actually launched a new sense of loyalty, team cohesion and commitment to safe work practices. Others bemoan the event as triggering a collective negative image, increased conflict and distrust of leadership: “That’s when the wheels fell off.”

Leadership in Times of Crisis

Managers need to respond immediately and effectively because how they handle the first hours after a tragedy offers both tremendous opportunity and serious risks. The incident and its aftermath will not go away if ignored. Work groups will go through a reactive process – with leadership or without it. Lead it!

Your employees are watching you as they make decisions about their own reactions. Construction leaders must be prepared to present that rare combination of compassion and competence – not mutually exclusive terms. Individually and organizationally, recovery is facilitated when the leader can acknowledge the personal impact upon involved people while at the same time transitioning them to next steps. Those watching must witness a confident, competent person who doesn’t minimize the effect of the incident but communicates an expectation of recovery.

Use of Critical Incident Response Specialists

Typically, the company’s safety, human resource or risk management department makes an immediate referral to a critical incident response organization. It already will have in place protocols by which the referrals are received, responses are managed logistically and specialists are dispatched to meet with impacted employees on-site.

Using group and individual meetings, the specialist provides a safe, directed environment to 1) position the company’s leadership favorably, 2) let people talk if they wish to do so, 3) identify “normal reactions to an abnormal event” so that people don’t panic regarding their own reactions, 4) build group support, 5) outline self-help recovery strategies, 6) brain-storm solutions to overcome immediate return-to-work and return-to-life obstacles, and 7) triage movement toward either immediate business-as-usual functioning or additional care. The specialist also engages in immediate assessment for anyone presenting risk for suicide or violence. Following intervention completion, the specialist provides the company’s management with recommendations for next steps.

When construction leaders manage the risk of a traumatic event via this process, they speed individual and organizational recovery and gain greater likelihood employees will positively view their involvement. Tragedy needn’t lead to additional tragedy.

Bob VandePol is president of Crisis Care Network ( He can be reached at (888) 736-0911, ext. 839.

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