When a death occurs in the workplace, worksites are often thrown into chaos. If the death occurred as the result of an industrial incident, fire, murder, or similar tragic incident, workers have to deal with a range of issues in addition to grief at the loss of a workmate. These issues generally relate to concerns about how and why the situation occurred, and can result in feelings of anger, guilt, fears for personal safety and a need for someone, or something, to blame.
Supporting workplace colleagues
Management may have little or no experience in dealing with the grief of families and workmates after a work-related death. Many people do not know what to do or say in such circumstances. Thoughtful gestures of sympathy and compassion, even when at a loss for the ‘right’ thing to say, are usually appreciated and leave a lasting impression of goodwill and caring.
Regardless of the cause of death, it is helpful if management:
- send a clear, simple message of support to staff recovering from the event
- leave an ‘open door’ for staff who wish to talk about what happened
- provide staff with access to a qualified counselling service
Management may be affected too, and may also benefit from access to professional counselling and support.
Workplaces may also help staff cope with their grief by:
- organizing activities in remembrance of the person who died
- allowing staff time off to attend the funeral
- holding a special ceremony at the workplace
- taking a collection for the family
- planting a tree on-site
- establishing some other memorial
- putting a tribute in the newspaper
For other workers, simply getting on with standard routines, and avoiding any special activities related to the death, may be the best way of putting the event behind them.
Workplace and the family
After a death in the workplace, the family of the person who has died are likely to expect that management will make contact with them without delay. Management can also be available to answer any questions, or to give help to the family, in the days immediately following the death.
It is important for there to be good communication between the workplace and the family of the person who has died. It may be helpful for one senior person, or a person who knows the family well, to be made the key point of contact. This person can communicate with the family about what they want, while also meeting the needs of the company and its workforce.
Some families may wish to have contact with the workplace. They may wish to see the site of the death, or to offer thanks to co-workers who helped their loved one. Similarly, having direct contact with the family may be helpful and positive for some workers. Others may avoid this as they fear it will raise painful memories. Whether there is direct contact or not, workers are often interested to know how the family are coping since the death, and what the company is doing to support them.
Legal and other issues
It can be helpful for a management plan to be in place to assist in responding effectively to a workplace death. The investigation of a work-related death can involve a number of legal, judicial and statutory authorities, such as South Australia Police, SafeWork SA, workplace insurance agents and the coroner. It may be important for all parties to be prepared for this, and to understand the authorities’ different roles, responsibilities and processes.
Families affected by the death of a family member in the workplace should consult with the deceased person’s employer and the claims agent responsible for managing the death claim.
Access to compensation and other entitlements is dependent on the acceptance of a completed Workcover claim, and in some cases may be limited to the worker to whom the claim relates. For this reason, consultation with the employer and the claims agent is essential.
A worker witnessing a fatal accident should consult with their employer about critical incident debriefing and access to counselling services. Where the worker lodges a claim for worker’s compensation, the worker should consult with the relevant claims agent responsible for managing their claim.
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Page last updated: 29 December, 2021