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Crisis management: preparing for the worst

  • 13 March 2014
  • By Roger Brown

Police and Health and Safety Executive (HSE) involvement following a serious workplace accident is now the norm, write Joanne Witheford, solicitor, and Vikki Woodfine, associate, at DWF. With the number of corporate manslaughter prosecutions rising, and six-figure fines for breaches of health and safety legislation involving a death commonplace, the ramifications of a serious incident are becoming ever more acute.

The haulage industry is not exempt from this. Nightfreight was fined £300,000 in January 2013 after one of its drivers was killed by a runaway truck at its Northamptonshire depot. According to figures from the HSE, there are more than 5,000 workplace incidents each year involving transport. Approximately 50 of these result in fatalities, and the main causes of injury are people falling from vehicles, or being struck/crushed by them.

The increasing trend for regulators to prosecute companies and their directors places employers in an even more stressful situation following a serious incident or fatality at work. Time spent planning can make that situation easier to manage. Below are seven top tips for managing such a crisis, once any casualties have been dealt with.

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.

2. Gather information
Record as much detail as possible about the accident or incident before any remedial action is taken. Taking photographs at this point is essential.

It is possible that the authorities investigating the incident will direct employers to leave the area undisturbed. If this is the case, then do not change a thing and ensure that the area is cordoned off. The area where the accident happened might be familiar to those who work in it, but think about others who might not know it so well. Collate all relevant schematic drawings, plans and photos where possible.

Make sure the relevant facts – such as witnesses to the incident, measurements, condition of plant, work area, lighting, etc – are recorded. If the victim is not an employee, but is employed by a subcontractor, ascertain the name of the subcontractor, the  name and contact details of a senior person on site, and obtain contact details. Also ask who can be contacted at the  employer’s firm for further information.

3. 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 might include counselling, line management support or legal advice depending on 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.

4. Report the death/incident
The immediate employer, or the company in control of the premises, has a legal duty to report the death or serious incident. A Riddor report must be submitted to the HSE as soon as practicable, which in most circumstances is the day of the incident.  Failure to do so is a breach of health and safety legislation, and it is important that a record of the report is kept.

5. Control the flow of information
It will help everyone, including the authorities, if clear lines of communication are established with only one senior individual  being authorised to speak on behalf of the organisation. Inform all concerned who the appointed person is and explain that
all requests from the authorities or other parties must be pushed through that person.

Ensure the relevant contact details of the  appointed person are disseminated to all employees on site. 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 in a timely manner.

6. Communicate
Communication with the media must be an element of the crisis plan, particularly where social media is concerned. A plan of action for dealing with the media is as important as the operational side of things. The media is not the enemy, and neither are social media channels – both can be a force for good or evil; make sure it’s the former. Ensure an external adviser or person in the business can advise on media relations. Never say “no comment” or “unavailable to comment” as this could be interpreted as an admission of guilt.

7. Take legal advice
It is likely that as a result of a fatality or serious incident, the organisation, and potentially its directors and employees, are the  subject of a criminal investigation.

Check insurance policies because insurers will often pay for legal advice at an early stage. Conduct an internal investigation into the incident to learn lessons for the future. However, do so with caution. Any report that is drafted following an accident can be seized by the HSE unless it carries legal professional privilege. Legal professional privilege is a concept that 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 the company vulnerable by drafting a self-critical report without legal privilege.

  • For more advice on how to prepare a business in the event of a crisis, contact Joanne Witheford, solicitor, at or 0161 838 0108 or Vikki Woodfine, associate, at or 0161 603 5060.
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