How to Handle the Worst News in Company History


There are fire extinguishers in case a fire starts. We hope one never does, yet the fire extinguishers are kept in good working order and hung in many appropriate places. As well, we keep first aid items available in case of injuries, and we hope we never put them to use.  This is proper planning. At its base is the most elementary of risk management processes. It is on this premise that I write this article. [WCx]
Today I want to take a short walk with you into the possible outcomes of having employees work in most any environment. Take, for example the office, a very low risk workplace, but none the less there is that potential for serious injury or even a fatality.  I will leave this to you, the reader, to add to this any other potentially increased risk that may occur at a particular place of employment.
Have you thought about what would happen in the event you, the owner, or CEO, ever gets that dreaded call? The call no one ever wants to hear.  It is from your site or plant foreman and the person can barely get out the words. There is a  worker or workers severely injured or killed at the worksite or plant.
WHAT DO YOU DO RIGHT NOW? The next actions taken may well mean the very survival of a company decades in the making. As well, with current case law regulatory requirements and court precedents, there may as well be criminal charges at hand.  Am I being theatrical? NO, Unfortunately I deal with just these events several times a year and have seen things go from bad to worse just for the lack of proper action being taken in the beginning.
What you do, how you do it, and how you respond to those around you is critical at this point. What words you choose and the actions you take at this critical time can make all the difference.  It is difficult to use an example here. Literally thousands of variables exist due to business type and the individual details that would make any real or example based case just a story. [WCx]
The point is your firm is unique and the situation will be as well. I can offer no checklist other than the basics.
This is where planning and forethought to your exposures is critical. Every owner or CEO should have a plan that has been thought out before hand and reinforced down the lines of responsibility. Just like the annual fire extinguisher or emergency drill, there has to be a plan. A well conceived plan that is communicated and reinforced with all down line supervisors and management often.  If I were to give you a scenario of an event at a competitor’s firm and ask you what they would need to do (or not do) in the event of a serious situation, you could do a relatively decent job with the details.
However, this is YOUR firm, it involves YOUR employees. The injured or killed are possibly your close friends or even a family member in the case of many firms.
 As well as having frank talks with all front line management, you also must have a relationship with a labor law firm and consultant that you can call to action with a single phone call. You likely will be in shock at this time and prone to distracting emotions in a situation that is critical.  For this reason the first action in the plan should be to call the labor law firm with whom there is a prearranged relationship. The firm can handle, and you can refer, any questions requiring immediate answers to them.
Most likely media will be on site right behind the emergency responders. As part of the action plan the law firm will assist in creating an initial statement that can be drilled into the supervisors and employees. All must be instructed on what to say. A standard that works is: “We have encountered a tragedy, details are not yet available, and I will get with you as soon as I have any answers Nothing more.  Your labor law firm, due to your individual circumstances, may have something different in mind. If so, rely on them.
Non-management employees must also be given rules. All must understand that company policy is quite strict concerning the importance that they do not say anything to the media. This must be included in your initial new hire training, written in company policy, and reinforced regularly
I do hope this information will convince all senior management to initiate this kind of planning into your existing emergency procedures. The time to prepare is before you get that call no one wants to get. I do hope that your plan remains just that a plan. [WCx]
A few reminders:
  • Gather senior management and discuss what kinds of incidents your industry is vulnerable to.
  • Prepare a written policy for serious incidents.
  • Communicate and train all senior management.
  • Notify all non-management employees that they are not authorized to speak with media after an event.
  • Retain a labor law firm to assist and review procedures.
  • If there is an incident, immediately call on the law firm to direct you through any incident. Follow the instructions, remember emotions will be high. A trusted advisor is chosen. Listen to them at this time.
Also see our article on Immediate Injury Response for further information.  
Brian Hill is owner of OshaSure in Birmingham Alabama and has over 20 years as a workplace safety and risk consultant. Brian was previously a pilot for a major US airline and member of the company’s interdepartmental safety committee. He found his new career in safety after the closing of the airline in 1991. Brian has found the same passion he had for flying in assisting companies with safety, heath and risk issues.
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