As a Nation, we’ve been marking Worker Memorial Week for 47-years. The number of people dying at work has decreased over those years, however, people continue to die.
Today, in the United States of America, 13 workers don't make it home from the job—that’s the average.
Every so often, my phone rings, and on the other end of the line is a quietly anxious voice, or, sometimes, it is a conference room full of serious voices. Sometimes it’s a company I know, sometimes not.
Yet, I know the sobering tone well: someone has died at work and those surviving need help.
I get those calls due to my work history and the relationships I built over a career in safety. Early on, I worked for OSHA as an investigator. In that role, I investigated 18 workplace deaths and 13 serious injuries. My work in the private sector involved a number of serious injuries and workers compensation case management, to add to the total.
I carry all those experiences and stories with me. Many of you reading now carry similar stories from your work or personal experience.
When I get one of those calls now, I drop into a ‘zone’, if you will, leaning into my body of experience and help walk employers through the legalities of fatality reporting, what they should be doing, and what to expect. It’s muscle memory after all these years, offering people in the midst of trauma a steady voice. (If you’re reading this and would like me to blog on that piece alone, please drop a comment).
I had two of those sobering calls in the past few months. One was a group of managers whose employee had committed suicide at work, and the other was an employer whose employee allegedly died of a health condition—not related to work—and they were waiting to learn more. Both employers needed guidance on if and how to report the deaths to OSHA; one of them was responding to their legal department’s suggestion to contact me.
I treated one of those calls the way I’d want to be treated; I needed to back-track on the other because I hadn’t taken the same approach.
The trauma of a workplace death or injury is a big damn deal. It’s scary, and terrible, and it breaks your heart and the hearts of the people who worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the person impacted. And throughout the trauma we still have to carry-out the duties of our work, often by-passing the trauma.
I know. I did that over 30 times.
And I’d be collecting the ‘evidence’ needed for an investigation or injury reporting, while the people and persons with whom I was getting the information were in the midst of trauma, many crying, shaking, frozen in grief or anger. I needed to hold myself together, offering grace, yet gathering and recording what was needed for my job. Many of you reading this have done exactly the same and it’s damned difficult.
When the group of managers called to tell me of their employee’s suicide, we worked through the ‘work’ part of what they needed to do, and then we spent a good amount of time talking about caring for themselves, their employees, the family of the deceased, and how they were going to do all of that. We had an open conversation, expressing grief and sadness, and coming up with a plan on how to care for the affected survivors, including themselves.
They checked in with me and I checked in with them via text and calls for a couple of weeks.
The other caller, whose legal department suggested they reach out…I handled that differently. We focused solely on the requirements for reporting, what to expect, and the legal mechanics I know so well. We had a pleasant conversation.
The caller was grateful and asked a few questions before we ended the call.
Minutes later, I had this wash of shame . . . oh, no! I hadn’t acknowledged the heart break! I quickly called back and apologized for not acknowledging what was happening at their workplace, and worked to address the same items I did with the group of managers.
“Don’t worry”, I was told, “We started working on that immediately by leaning into guidance from our Employee Assistance Program (EAP), but thank you for thinking of us.”
Sigh. Good on them!
It’s Worker Memorial Week. Take some time this week to acknowledge trauma that’s happened in your workplace. Be gentle with yourselves and your coworkers, speak the names of the person’s lives impacted. Offer professional emotional assistance to employees—including yourself—because doing so is as important as the technical & legal aspects of our work. Ask yourselves and your employees if you’ve done and continue to do all you can to ensure that a serious injury or fatality never happens to another life in your workplace.
Thank you for the work you do and the work you’re doing.