We all live and strive for a day when work-related deaths, injuries and illnesses are gone; when everyone returns home from work just as healthy and whole as they were when they left. But until that day comes, tragedies continue to occur. It’s the worst thing most managers or health and safety professionals can imagine. If the worst does happen, the way the employer responds can play a surprisingly important role in the impact that tragedy has.

A report Threads of Life released in 2017 shows that many companies are not doing a good job of dealing with a worker’s loved ones following a fatality or life-altering injury. Based on a survey of Threads of Life members, the report reveals that only a third of employers came to the family’s home to tell them of the tragedy. Only half of employers provided some sort of support to the family following a workplace death or serious injury, and less than half did anything afterwards to honour the worker. Only about a third of employers sustain any longer-term relationship with the worker’s family.

Some simple – although not easy – steps can promote or delay the family’s healing following the tragedy. These include reaching out to the family, providing whatever information the employer can about the tragedy and investigation, taking some steps to honour and remember the worker, and just keeping in touch. Most families understand that an investigation is underway and the company is bound by legal considerations – they just want to be treated in a way that reflects humanity, humility and sincerity.

The report includes numerous comments directly from those who continue to cope with the ripple effects of tragedy. These provide a distressing insight into the treatment most families receive when a loved one has been hurt or killed at work, and the years-long effect that has:

I was bitter for a long time,” one participant said, and another added “I have not let go of this since the incident and it stays with me every day. I do not think I will ever be able to let it go.”

“Shortly after [my family member’s] passing his employer came to the house to provide his ROE and last paycheque. He was very cold and distant and did not seem remorseful. And definitely did not provide any insight into the situation. This was the only communication before, during and after the court proceedings and coroner’s inquest. Providing us peace of mind that this incident was a lesson learned for them would definitely bring a positive out of something tragic.”

“I felt disrespected by this employer. My whole family did. I feel like they knew they had some responsibility in his death and by staying completely away from it they didn’t have to acknowledge that.”

On the other hand, though, compassionate treatment at such a terrible time leaves an impression that is not soon forgotten:

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.”

“I was impressed with the response of the company president coming to my home on the same day as the death. He was so sympathetic for me and my family but he was also grieving over the loss of a friend and coworker. That touched me. And comforted me too. To hear him worry about the surviving men and taking action also comforted me.”

“The support I felt, helped me. His tears touched me as genuine grief. He really felt what I was going through.”

Ultimately, the one thing that provides the greatest comfort and healing for families after a tragedy, is knowing that steps have been taken to eliminate the hazard and that others won’t have to go through the pain and grief they’ve experienced. That’s why so many Threads of Life families choose to be part of prevention by sharing their stories and participating in Steps for Life events.

“Employers should consider taking a step back and try and put themselves in the shoes of the family. A death, critical injury or occupational illness in the workplace is completely unacceptable and yet this provides an employer with an opportunity to change and prevent it from occurring again in the future. If the employer conducted a thorough investigation of the incident, several recommendations would present themselves. It is these recommendations and forward movement from the incident that I feel would provide some sense of comfort being communicated to the family members knowing that an employer recognizes their responsibility and is willing to recognize shortfalls in their business and that moving forward they will ensure that this will not happen to another worker.”

And to sum it up, one family member simply commented:

“Don’t let this type of thing happen in your workplace.”

To read the best practices based on the experiences of Threads of Life members, download the free report.

Susan Haldane