Inspections Safety culture

After a fatality

The impact ‘never goes away’

Photo: fantom_rd/iStockphoto

William Keith Stormant and Eric McClellan are among the 4,836 U.S. workers who were killed on the job in 2015. Both were experienced at their work and, by all accounts, highly respected.

Each was in his 50s and had been married for more than 25 years. Between them, they had four sons. 

Their deaths still affect safety professionals and their employers, PotashCorp. (now known as Nutrien) and Reynolds Consumer Products. And each spurred changes to the organizations’ respective safety programs. 

“The incident was extremely difficult for the entire company,” said Chad Clark, senior operations manager at Reynolds Consumer Products“We had to do everything possible to mitigate the risk of future injury or death. We took a hard look at our EHS management system and what gaps existed and closed them immediately.”

The safety pros and others in those organizations also had to contend with grief – both internal and external – along with the questions of what they could have done differently.

“I think when something like this happens, you’re personally invested and you feel a huge responsibility for it,” said John Horne, vice president of safety, health and environment at Nutrien and the former director of safety and health at PotashCorp. “I think the hardest part is when you start to think that lives are never going to be the same. The impact of a fatality, it never goes away.” 

Emotional support

The emotional aspects of a tragic incident can remain years afterward not only within the workplace and the worker’s household but in the surrounding community. Taylor Abel, lead for the Campbell Institute’s Serious Injury and Fatality Prevention Workgroup at the National Safety Council, said he found that out when he worked in Esterhazy, Saskatchewan, known as the “Potash Capital of the World.”

“There weren’t any fatalities while I was there, but there had been years earlier,” he said. “In a small town, you still felt the impact of the loss all those years later.” 

To provide emotional support for workers after an incident, many organizations look to employee assistance programs. Richard Ottenstein, CEO of The Workplace Trauma Center in Maryland, recommends looking into whether your EAP has a critical incident response program.

“It’s important to utilize providers that are trained in providing onsite crisis support for corporations,” Ottenstein said. “Corporate crisis response is different (than crisis interventions from licensed mental health pros). It’s working with systems that are in place.” 

Anyone affected by a tragedy should be encouraged, but not required, to attend counseling sessions, he added. 

Although a unifying response such as a memorial may be helpful, it also could cause stress or retrigger difficult emotional responses. 

The Colorado State Employee Assistance Program advises employers to not require workers to participate in remembrances or other post-incident events. Similarly, don’t pressure employees to share stories or participate in debriefing activities.

Instead, employers should continuously remind workers, even weeks or months after an incident, that help is available. C-SEAP emphasizes that people process grief in different ways and time lines.

“Be patient with yourself and others as you all cope in the aftermath of the event or situation,” C-SEAP says. 

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