New report guides employers dealing with a workplace tragedy

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Five key recommendations from family support association

Two people in conversationNo one wants a work-related tragedy to happen. A fatality, serious injury, or occupational disease exacts a huge emotional and economic cost, and the ripples reach family members, friends, co-workers, the community and beyond. But if the worst does happen, the way the employer responds can make a significant difference to the family of an injured or deceased worker.

A new report released by Threads of Life, the Association for Workplace Tragedy Family Support, details how company representatives’ interaction with the family can either help or hinder emotional healing after the tragedy. The report is based on a survey of Threads of Life family members. While the survey is not scientific, it accurately captures families’ perceptions of the way companies both large and small deal with family members after a serious workplace incident, and reflects the impact that treatment can have on the family. 

“This relationship [with the employer] was very important to our family,” one family member commented. “We felt that they sincerely cared about us and would do whatever they could to help us through the difficult times.”

Sadly, the survey reveals that a positive relationship is the exception rather than the rule for most families who’ve experienced a work-related fatality or serious injury. Only 50 per cent of employers took steps to support the family, less than half made any move to honour the injured or deceased worker, and only about one third maintained a longer-term relationship with the family.

Based on the survey findings and recommendations from those who’ve lived through a workplace tragedy, the report offers five key recommendations which companies should build into their emergency plan and safety program.

1. Go to the family

It may be the most difficult thing a senior manager, CEO or human resources professional ever has to do, but it is highly recommended that a senior representative of the company go see the family. Before a tragedy, seek out training and resources and ensure the appropriate representatives are skilled in dealing with critical incidents, and communicating about and during tragedies. It’s very important that the company demonstrate its compassion and commitment to the family by visiting the house, or if appropriate, visiting the hospital as soon as possible.

2. Communicate with the family

The importance of information was emphasized by every survey respondent, however, employers may feel constrained by both legal concerns and their lack of complete knowledge about the circumstances of the injury or death. Have an internal discussion ahead of time, with legal consultation, about what the company representatives may and may not say. Ideally, companies have a response plan and communication policy before it is ever required, and make both available to anyone who may be called upon to communicate with the family in the event of an incident.

Offer the family what information you can about what happened, acknowledging that you don’t know all the details. Let them know there will be an investigation, and provide assurance that you will do all in your power to prevent further tragedies. Advise them about the process of reporting, investigation and compensation including what you will do as the employer, and anything the family needs to do. However, do not say or promise anything you don’t absolutely know to be true. Keep in mind that, as the tragedy is so recent, the family members may not be taking in all you tell them. Make a return visit to offer any updates and repeat the information. It is most meaningful for the families to hear empathy. Above all, be human and compassionate. Express sorrow.

3. Support all those affected by the tragedy in your workplace

There are forms of support, both immediate and longer-term, which are meaningful to and appreciated by the family in the wake of a serious workplace injury or death. In some cases these are simple things – staying with the individual until another family member can arrive, driving relatives to the hospital, making phone calls to clergy and others. Ask what you can do to help – even if assistance is not required, the offer is a step toward building a relationship.

In the days and weeks following a workplace tragedy, survey respondents gave examples of company representatives visiting in hospital, cleaning out a young man’s apartment, and handling tasks like driving the injured or deceased person’s vehicle home. Many employers also offer to assist with funeral costs or top up coverage provided by the compensation board for funeral expenses, or to cover any travel or accommodation costs involved in travelling to the hospital or the work location. Again, make no assumptions about what will be helpful and ask what the family needs. Only offer what you know you can do, and if accepted, be sure to follow through.

4. Honour the worker

One critical way employers can honour a worker is by conducting a thorough investigation and implementing changes to ensure the hazards involved in the tragedy are eliminated or controlled. As part of the communication and response plan, it is important to communicate the steps being taken by the company. Families will be relieved to know further tragedies will be prevented, even though it comes too late for their loved one.

Many families both dread and resent the idea that the workplace has simply moved on, and the worker has been forgotten. Families understand that the work goes on, but they value efforts by an employer to honour the worker. In the case of a fatality, attending the funeral – and perhaps more importantly allowing the co-workers to attend – is an obvious first step.

“Many of his co-workers were there. I gave every one of them a hug and held grown men as they wept and told me stories about my son. I will never forget their kindness,” one family member said. Families had mixed feelings about senior managers attending, but in most cases welcomed the affected worker’s colleagues.

Among survey respondents, in the best cases, employers honoured workers by creating a lasting memorial:

  • Planted a tree and had a memory stone made
  • Created a plaque and gave it to the family
  • Organized a memorial event at the workplace and invited the family
  • Donated to a charity of the family’s choosing in honour of the worker
  • Donated to a scholarship fund established by the family
  • Dedicated or named something (a garage, a park, a boat) in honour of the worker
  • Sent flowers to the cemetery each year on the anniversary of the death
  • Placed a memorial in the newspaper on the anniversary of the death
  • Supported the family’s fundraising for Steps for Life –Walking for Families of Workplace Tragedy events

5. Keep in touch 

Injured workers and their families in particular spoke of being cut off and isolated from their former workplace. Following fatalities, companies often break off contact with the family once the funeral is over. For injured workers, the employer can make efforts to keep them in the loop and connected to colleagues at work – not only does this help the worker’s mental well-being, it could make a future return to work smoother. For any workplace tragedy, family should be informed of the progress of the investigation and/or inquest. 

Families were touched when company representatives visited or phoned regularly, sent a card and continued to remember the injured or deceased employee months and years after the tragedy. Families appreciated when an employer maintained “open lines of communication” with them.

“My spouse’s boss touched base by phone with me every couple of days while [my spouse] was in hospital, and then once he died the boss contacted me approximately once a month for a year. This helped me to feel they (his work) had not forgotten about [my spouse] and his family. This really helped to console us, and made us feel like they actually cared.”

In the best cases, the report concludes, a compassionate response from the employer can promote a family’s healing, enhance the perceptions the family and others have of the company, and ultimately help to build a culture of safety.

Photo by Tom Buchanan Photographics.


Read the full report: Workplace tragedy: Employer communication and crisis response at

Notifying survivors about sudden, unexpected deaths - Edited excerpt from Grave Words: Notifying Survivors About Sudden, Unexpected Deaths, copyright 1999, by Kenneth V. Iserson. 

Communicating in a Crisis, Accident Prevention magazine, January-February 2007

Lost-time claim statistics, fatality statistics, Association of Workers Compensation Boards of Canada, accessed July 26, 2016