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Helicopter crane crash highlights HR implications of major accidents

The potential for site accidents is a fact of life for those working in the construction industry, but how companies and HR managers deal with the aftermath of accidents is vital, says Laytons Solicitors partner Stephen Robinson.

The construction industry has made great advances in site safety but, as the London helicopter crash demonstrated, serious accidents are by their nature shocking, unexpected and traumatic for all concerned.

The possibility of an accident is a fact of life

The incident at The Tower, One St George Wharf, was of course atypical of the majority of accidents that occur on UK construction sites. But for employers, the possibility that death or serious injury can occur when we least expect it should be a fact of life.

Falls, crushes, electrocution, impacts or being run over by operating equipment all account for large numbers of serious injuries. If the recent pattern shown in the Health and Safety Executive figures is repeated, some 50 construction workers will lose their lives in site accidents during 2013. 

Implications of accidents often includes claims

The industry is rightly focused on accident prevention but also needs plans and procedures to cope in the event of a serious incident. The implications of a fatality are far-reaching and often result in legal claims.

Witnesses to a death or serious injury are likely to be mentally scarred in the aftermath of the incident and may show signs of stress and depression leading to absence from work.

If they work on plant and machinery, it is essential that employers keep an even closer eye on those individuals. Work colleaguesmay well be suffering too and the affected business needs to be mindful of this.

Spotting the signs of stress

Everyone deals with tragedy in different ways and how stress manifests itself isn’t necessarily obvious to those around. For this reason, businesses need to provide a procedure and guidance to assist or remind staff of what to do and look out for.

“Large-scale incidents were followed by six-figure claims for compensation from workers involved in the immediate aftermath”

Companies should be able to offer referral to an occupational health practitioner to examine those potentially affected by tragedy. While difficult to accept, the business may well be endangering the wellbeing of others by failing to recognise witnesses and colleagues who may be suffering as a consequence.

In severe cases there is clearly the risk that a bystander to a tragedy may suffer from a clinically treatable reaction to the incident, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. These situations can lead to potential legal action against the employer on the basis they didn’t take care of the individual properly. 

Large-scale incidents such as the Hillsborough stadium disaster, for instance, were followed by six-figure claims for compensation from workers involved in the immediate aftermath. Best practice is to keep detailed records of what the business has done by means of post-incident support to its staff.

HR managers must be hands-on from the outset

Dealing with the immediate loss or absence of an employee can also put strain on businesses. Key managers and directors have been lost in incidents and thought must be given as to how the operation will cope without key staff if tragedy strikes.

On the other hand, unfortunately for some employees it presents an opportunity to remain absent unjustifiably and this is precisely why those responsible for HR need to be hands-on at the outset.

Stephen Robinson is a partner at Laytons Solicitors

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