Crisis Response: preparing for the worst

Police and HSE involvement following a serious workplace accident is now the norm. With the number of corporate manslaughter prosecutions rising, and six-figure fines for breaches of health and safety legislation involving a death now commonplace, the ramifications of a serious incident are becoming ever more acute. The haulage industry is no exception. For example, in January 2013, Neightfreight was fined £300,000 after one of its drivers was killed by a runaway truck at its depot in Northamptonshire.

The increasing trend for regulators to prosecute companies and their directors places employers in a particularly stressful situation following a serious incident or fatality at work. Time spent planning in advance can make that situation easier to manage. Below are six top tips for managing such a crisis.

1. Make the site safe

One of the first things that must be considered is whether the accident site is safe and whether any remedial action needs to be undertaken to ensure the safety of employees and others.

It is a good idea to record as much detail as you can about the accident before any remedial action is taken. Taking photographs at this point is essential. It is possible that the authorities investigating the incident will direct you to leave the area undisturbed. If this is the case then you should not change a thing and ensure that the area is cordoned off.

Make sure the relevant facts such as witnesses to the incident, measurements, condition of plant, work area, lighting etc. are recorded.

2. Support your employees

It is essential to ensure that any employees involved in or affected by the incident are offered immediate support and advice.

This may include counselling, line management support or legal advice depending upon the individual and their connection with the incident. Even the presence of a director or health and safety advisor can provide an invaluable amount of support to employees.

3. Report the death/incident

As the immediate employer, or the company in control of premises, you have a legal duty to report the death or serious incident. You must make a RIDDOR report to the HSE. This must be done as soon as practicable, which in most circumstances means on the day of the incident. Failure to do so is a breach of health and safety legislation and therefore it is important that you keep a record of the report you make.

4. Control the flow of information

It will help everyone, including the authorities, if clear lines of communication are established with only one senior individual having authority to speak on behalf of your organisation.

Inform all concerned who the appointed person is and explain that all requests from the authorities or other parties must be channelled through that person.

Ensure the relevant contact details of the appointed person are disseminated to all employees on site. Either this person, or another senior person, should also handle any queries received from the press. Dealing with the media can be a minefield and it is important that the correct information or statement is provided to them in a timely manner.

5. Communicate

Communication with the media must be an element of your crisis plan in the face of social media in particular. Having a plan of action for dealing with the media is as important as the operational side of things.

Ensure that you have an external adviser or person within the business who can advise regarding media relations. The first rule is never EVER say “no comment”. To a lay person, no comment means “we are guilty”. Being unavailable to comment means the same thing.

6. Take legal advice

It is more than likely that as a result of a fatality or serious incident, your organisation, and potentially its directors and employees, are now the subject of a criminal investigation. Check your insurance policy as insurers will often pay for you to take legal advice at an early stage.

It is often sensible to conduct an internal investigation into the incident to try to learn lessons for the future. However, you must do so with caution. Any report that you draft following an accident can be seized by the HSE unless the report carries legal professional privilege. Legal professional privilege is a concept which can be used to effectively protect documentation, statements and reports prepared in the aftermath of an incident from disclosure to the Police and the HSE. Do not leave yourself vulnerable by drafting a self-critical report without legal privilege.

For more advice on how to prepare your business for a crisis, contact Joanne Witheford, Solicitor, at / 0161 838 0108.

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