Workplace Fatalities: The Impact on Coworkers

To help employees overcome the emotional distress of a coworker's death, Danny Cain, safety/risk manager for Edwards Moving & Rigging Inc. and former clinical social worker, suggests developing a grief response plan for the aftermath of an on-the-job fatality.

“No one wants to plan what to do when a fatality occurs because they don't want it to happen in the first place,” Cain told Occupational Hazards. But looking the other way, he pointed out, won't help workers get the support they need and ultimately can harm the company.

To help employees after a fatality, Cain said companies should conduct a critical incident stress debriefing, preferably managed by an outside professional. This process aims to de-escalate the situation; provide support and reassurance; ascertain and assess emotional effects; refer employees to additional mental health services, as needed; and offer follow-up support.

According to Cain, the death of a coworker can affect all employees, regardless of whether they witnessed the incident, worked in the same department or were close with the deceased worker.

“The after-effects on the workforce can last months, even years,” Cain said. He explained many coworkers experience a lot of self-doubt or guilt, as if they had a role in the fatality. They wonder what they could have done differently and how they might be responsible, even if they had nothing to do with the event at all.

“Management obviously needs to realize the impact an accident like that has on their work,” Cain said.

The incident and its aftermath can affect workers' performance and even be detrimental to safety. Coworkers may be distracted by thoughts of the fatality and might second-guess themselves. “You'd like to say you can't be too safe … but in situations where you're thinking too much, thought processes become clouded,” Cain stated.

Cain was prompted to develop his own response guide after an area utility company experienced a workplace fatality. The death left the company shocked and employees bereft.

“They were ill-prepared to say the least of the magnitude of effect it would have on employees,” he said.

The utility company knew Cain had a background in mental health work - he spent 15 years working as a clinical social worker in a psychiatric hospital - and turned to him to help their workers deal with the fatality. Cain wrote a pocket response guide he calls G.R.I.E.F., a Guided Response, Intervention and Evaluation for Fatalities, to help the company's employees recover from the incident.

This pocket guide is available exclusively on Cain has authorized its use for employers hoping to develop their own fatality recovery plans.

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