Fatalities & Serious Injuries
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Hi, I'm Jill, Chief Safety Officer with Vivid Learning Systems. I'm a former OSHA inspector, and I'm here to help you identify and correct workplace safety hazards.
For this series we're at Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative in the heart of the Upper Midwest to show you no matter where you work, safety training is for everyone.
In the years that I've spent with OSHA as an investigator, I unfortunately investigated many workplace deaths and serious injuries. That work often involved me working with local law enforcement. And today I'm joined by Scott with the Renville County Sheriff's Office. And like me, Scott has also investigated and responded to many workplace deaths and serious injuries. Together we'd like to share with you what to expect by way of response from law enforcement, and from OSHA.
Thanks for being with me today.
You're very welcome. Thanks for having me.
So, Scott, when law enforcement shows up on the scene of an accident or a death, what are some of the first things that are happening, things that your office is doing? And what can an employer expect?
When Sheriff's Office staff arrive, they're going to work hand-in-hand with EMS and fire professionals, whoever might be there. We're going to do our best to secure that scene, to first and foremost provide life safety. If there's any first aid or resuscitation that needs to happen, we're going to assist with that. After that's done, then our priority becomes reconstructing that scene. Understanding how this event happened, why it happened, with the ultimate goal to prevent it from ever happening again.
We will be interviewing witnesses, we will be taking pictures, perhaps making some field sketches. All of those things that go into an investigation will begin relatively early.
And you're not necessarily looking ... Well, I guess, maybe you're deciding do we have a criminal case here, or is this a case where we're gathering information that will go onto another agency?
You're exactly right. So, our job is to determine whether or not a crime has been committed. In most cases, that's not the case. Once we have made that determination, then our job, our focus, becomes collecting evidence to, again, be able to reconstruct that scene. Often times to be able to hand that off to OSHA professionals.
So, if a safety director is listening to this, and they're trying to figure out how would they respond by way of when we talk about securing a scene, what's okay for them to do? Would it be okay for them to take their own photos or to, in the case of a death, to cover a body, to take any measurements? What sort of things are okay for them to do from your perspective?
Sure. Holding a scene to us means to leave things exactly as they are. So, to cover a body, I would advise against it. Now, while we want to provide dignity to the decedent, my preference would be you just move others away. Unfortunately, covering bodies can sometimes cause contaminants to be infused into that scene.
What about taking photographs?
So, photographs, if the employer, if that safety director has the time and the resources to do that, there's nothing wrong with that. In today's day and age, we all have cameras right with us. Remember our goal is to document that scene exactly as it is, as close to the time as the event as possible.
And to be emotionally equipped to be able to do that, too. So, maybe safety directors shouldn't feel like it's a necessary, but if they want to.
That's exactly right. There's no expectation on our part that the employer is going to document a scene. We will provide that service.
Right. And, so, sometimes in the case of a death or an injury, if it's involving another individual, or other individuals who may have been part of that, they may be reacting as any human would. Which could be a whole lot of different reactions. Whether they're being maybe withdrawn and quiet, or maybe really overwrought with grief, or maybe even volatile. What kind of advice would you give to companies in those sort of situations?
Sure. And we will never be able to predict how somebody will react. Even somebody who happens to be there at the time, and had no causation whatsoever. All of those folks need the care and the attention of their employer.
Now, while we don't endorse moving all of these witnesses together, we want them to be separate, but we don't want them to be alone. And, so, if it means calling in a friend, a co-worker, somebody to be with them. Remember that they're still human. We still have to take care of them. If they have a loved one that they want to have called in, if it's going to be some time before they're going to be interviewed, I think that's completely acceptable.
And when we talk about separating witnesses, it's not because we're looking necessarily for something that was wrong, but will you talk a little bit about why we want to keep people separated before we talk with them?
Sure. So, in an event where there's multiple witnesses, every single time those witnesses will each have a slightly different perception of what happened. They will have noticed one thing that another witness didn't, and vice versa. And, so, we want them to be able to give their account of what happened in their own words. The way to do that is to keep them apart.
Unfortunately, as humans, if we all come together, especially after an event like this, we tend to talk about it. And, so, what we don't want is for thoughts of one witness to become the thoughts of-
Someone else's account-
... another witness.
... becomes their account.
Yeah, yeah. Makes sense, makes sense. So that's the purpose of keeping people separated.
Right. It's in no way meant to punish anybody. It's just so that we get an accurate accounting of how it happened, when it happened, and maybe why it happened.
And so, if you're keeping people separated, especially in a traumatic situation, don't isolate them.
Offer them some sort of comfort or someone to be with who's not a fellow witness.
Separate, but not alone.
Very good. Thank you so much for that.
And so, after you gather this information, and you've established, let's say there isn't a crime. What happens with the information that you've gathered? To whom does it get passed? What kind of happens with thing?
Sure. A number of different people may have access to that information. It may go to a prosecutor's office for reviewal. More often than that, it goes to a workplace investigation entity, perhaps OSHA.
Okay. Okay. Yeah, and that's exactly where I would pick up in this kind of scenario when there's been a death or a serious injury. When I would get contacted and dispatched to a scene, I would always wait to respond until your work was done. To stay out of your way, while you're maintaining life safety, like you said, and ensuring life safety, and gathering evidence that you needed.
You do measurements, you take photographs, you're interviewing people, you're gathering information. And then OSHA shows up on a scene after that. Depending on how far away an investigator is coming, it can be a little ways. And so, I would get contacted, and then often would contact the local law enforcement agency to kind of get, like, update me on what's happening.
Sure. And really that's often times reciprocal. Most of the time, OSHA is notified immediately. Sometimes it's by the employer, sometimes it's by our office or law enforcement. You're right, there's work that has to be done prior to the OSHA folks showing up. If there's a fatality, often times the medical examiner's office, or the coroner's office has to be involved. The investigation continues, and then of course, we're always happy to pass that along to OSHA.
Again, our goal isn't to get anybody in trouble. Our goal is to prevent these tragedies from happening again.
Happening again, right.
Interestingly, I have a question for you.
What happens when OSHA shows up? What can folks expect? Often times we're gone by that point. What does OSHA do? It's a scary entity.
Yeah, right. Right, trying not to be scary. So, as a reminder for employers, if you've had a workplace death, you have to report those within eight hours to an OSHA office. There's an 800 number for OSHA, and you can contact either federal, or if you have a state agency, you'll get routed to the right agency to do those reporting. And then you also have to report any time there's been a hospitalization, or an amputation, or a loss of an eye within 24 hours.
And so then, OSHA is dispatched to a site, and depending on kind of where that regional person is, it may take them a while. In my experience, when an employer would contact me, or through by way of the reporting system it would get to me, I would often be asked, "Well, are we holding the scene for you?" And holding the scene for me, is different than holding the scene for you.
So, holding a scene for you, especially in the case of a death would be that nothing is moved, including the diseased until you're done processing the scene. And so, from an OSHA perspective that's not always the case. Holding the scene would be can you please keep all the equipment in place. But you've already processed by way of taking the photographs that you need. And if I know that as the investigator, then I would ask you for those things afterward, and we wouldn't be holding a scene by way of having someone who's diseased to stay on scene. Because that would just not seem kind to the survivors, and the family, and the employees at the facility.
And so, from an OSHA perspective, when an investigator comes on scene, we would show credentials, not unlike what you would do to prove that we are who we are. And then begin our own process of gathering information, many of the same facts that you're gathering by way of interviewing employees. OSHA representatives when they interview employees who are witnesses, if there were any witnesses, they had rights read to them so that they know that the information that they're sharing could be used for a legal case should there be any citations issued as a result of whatever it is we're investigating. Whether it's a serious injury or a fatality. And so, employees would be interviewed individually with their union representation if they have one.
And then, again, trying to build that case to find out what happened here, how do we prevent it in the future, have there been any violations of any safety regulations? And if so, how would we make changes in the future to ensure the same, or similar, never happened to anyone again? And then if there are surviving victims then the OSHA investigator would also interview and speak with them when it was appropriate as well. And then also gather information on next-of-kin so that letters of condolence can be sent to families in those kind of cases, too.
Interesting. So, am I to understand that every time there's a workplace injury, somebody from OSHA is going to show up?
No. And so, that's not always the case. Definitely an inspection will be triggered anytime there's a hospitalization of any employee as a result of a workplace accident. Whenever there's a loss of an eye, or an amputation, those things trigger inspections. Not every single workplace injury is investigated. Many are, but not all of them. It kind of depends on the workload of the investigators at the time, and whatever the area directors have decided this sounds like something we need to investigate. But definitely not every single one.
Yeah, right? Yeah, so, when you and I are responding to these kind of scenes, there's a lot of anxiety. There's sadness, there's anger. How do you help and manage through that, and, of course, still doing your job?
Yeah, so, I like to explain it as very unusual things happening to usual people. It's us, as employees, seeing something that perhaps we ought not see. As responders you will find that we will show some empathy and compassion. We understand that it's traumatic to everybody involved.
Our overwhelming message is just stay calm, back away, please leave everything as you see it. Don't put guards back in place, don't move vehicles, don't do any of those things. Our goal is to try to reconstruct this so that we can understand how it happened, why it happened, and prevent it from happening again. All the while, understanding that there is a piece of humanity that's also involved. And so, we're just people like everyone else, and hopefully we'll be able to convey that message.
This ought not be a scary time. From an employee perspective, with their relation to the employer, we want that relationship to survive as well. And so, if employers have employee assistance programs and things like that, those become very, very important in sort of the aftermath of these events.
Yeah. Yeah, I guess in my experience, I would often see in the panic and the trauma of the situation, employers who would respond in one of two ways. One would be with the empathy that we're talking about, and really an immediate commitment to this is never going to happen on our watch again. And we're going to do blah blah blah to make sure it never happens.
And then the other side of it, the response that I saw often was victim blaming. Immediately victim blaming comes out, and it was because this happened, or they did this, or it was this, as if someone set out at the beginning of their workday to have something terrible happen to them. Which is never the case. People don't set out to be injured, or killed at work. And so, it's kind of both and, and I guess if I have a message to employers it would be to try to really avoid that victim blaming route. There's always multi-factorial reasons for things that happen, and things that go wrong. And it's not going to serve anyone, particularly your surviving employees, if you go down the route of, oh, if something bad happens here, we're going to start blaming victims right away.
Exactly. And the same is true for anybody at the scene of that emergency, or the scene of that tragedy. We sometimes have to just remind ourselves to reserve judgment. Although we might think initially we know what happened, and who's to blame, that's not always the case. And, so, it's important to let that investigation play out until the very end, and then determine what happened, and if there is a way to prevent it from happening again.
Yeah, and really taking care of your employees along the way. In the face of this kind of tragedy, the people who work side-by-side and hand-in-hand with people who are hurt or people who are killed, this is life-changing for them. It's a big deal. And to kind of acknowledge that, whether you're the employer, or whether you're the investigator, that this is traumatic event for them. And to remind the employer that there are EAP services, there are local pastoral services, local counseling services for people to help in the immediacy of the tragedy, but also ongoing. As things play out, and they go back to work, and things kind of get back to whatever the new normal is going to be, and how do we walk through that together as an employer, and as a community, particularly with a law enforcement agency.
Exactly. You're exactly right. Those relationships between the employer and the employee have to go on. For that company to be successful, the employer has to take care of its employees. And failure to do that will result in demise every time.
This has been an interesting conversation. It's nice that we can share this together as different agencies, and how I did in the past, and how you currently respond to things. So, thank you so much.
If you find yourself in this kind of situation, hopefully the things that we shared with you today will be helpful to you.
I hope you gained a safety training skill today. If you know someone who needs this, go ahead and pass it on. Safety is everyone's business.