Workplace Fatalities: The Impact on Coworkers

Feb. 13, 2008
The aftermath of a workplace fatality can have long-lasting effects on other employees’ emotional health, productivity and safety. To overcome this, Danny Cain, safety/risk manager for Edwards Moving & Rigging Inc. and former clinical social worker, suggests developing a grief response plan to help coworkers face 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 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.

He also suggests developing certain protocol, such as who will be the company spokesperson should a fatality occur. Companies generally prefer to name only one person to this role, he said, to avoid confusion.

“In most companies, we have this mentality it’s never going to happen,” he said of on-the-job fatalities. “I think preparedness before an event happens is always the best plan.”

When Work Performance Suffers

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. All employees therefore should be offered this debriefing.

“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.

Recovery Phases

Cain was prompted to develop his own response guide after an area utility company experienced a worker 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.

The guide contains a six-phase plan to help employees work through the death of a coworker.

  • Phase 1: Event Analysis – The first step after a fatality occurs is to establish a fact-finding review to determine what actually happened during the fatal incident. It is not uncommon for facts to be misconstrued as workers trade stories and hear secondhand accounts. Employees should be encouraged, however, to recall the events they remembered.
  • Phase 2: Emotional Sharing – The debriefing should demonstrate that coworkers share similar feelings and thoughts about the incident. This prevents them with withdrawing and believing they are alone in their reactions.
  • Phase 3: Reactive Feelings – In this stage, employees may be more forthcoming and emotional, and may be more willing to verbalize anger, fear, guilt or helplessness. Often, it is helpful for coworkers to share their most vivid and painful memories of the incident.
  • Phase 4: Clinical Symptoms – This phase can reveal employees’ emotional, cognitive, behavioral and physical symptoms by encouraging them to share their feelings. Symptoms can include nightmares, hand tremors, nausea, nervousness, eating or sleeping difficulties and flashbacks.
  • Phase 5: Psychoeducational Lessons Learned – In this phase, employees should move from an emotional to cognitive level of dealing with the trauma. Coworkers may realize during this phase that their feelings are normal and eventually will subside. It is important to educate employees about their reactions and behaviors.
  • Phase 6: Readjustment/Recovery – At this point, the coworker should be able to summarize the critical incident and determine an action plan for moving on.

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

“My goal from the get-go was to help anyone I could with it,” he said.

For an in-depth look at the science of workplace fatalities, read Occupational Hazard’s January feature, Facing the Unthinkable: Fatalities in the Workplace.

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