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Managing the Response to Industrial Accidents

Photo: Courtesy of Guilherme Cunha

United States manufacturers continue to experience high profile accidents that bring intense public scrutiny and the potential for reputational harm.

Whether it is a single fatality or a facility explosion, these incidents present a “perfect storm” of challenges that can overwhelm even the most sophisticated organizations. Criminal investigators are often among the first personnel at an incident scene which raises stakes even higher. A prompt, effective response by attorneys experienced in crisis management is essential.

Investigating what happened

Multiple federal and state laws establish jurisdiction for investigations by government authorities. It is not unusual to have an alphabet soup of five or more independent agencies, each with its own statutory mandate, investigating an incident. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency routinely initiate enforcement inspections after major accidents. Independent investigating agencies, such as the National Transportation Safety Board or the Chemical Safety Board may also respond. State and local authorities also are likely to respond to major events within their jurisdictions.

Although individual crises may vary, major accidents implicate similar legal issues and considerations including internal investigations, stakeholder engagement, evidence preservation and government inspection response. Defending a client’s legal interests is only part of effective crisis management. Safeguarding an organization’s long-term reputation, demonstrating cooperation and promptly regaining site control are equally important.

Preparing for everything

To be prepared, companies should develop resources such as a major accident guidebook. Such guidebooks help establish general procedures that assist in-house attorneys and safety professionals in identifying and managing issues likely to arise within the first 96 hours after an event. The company and its legal counsel should then use these materials to conduct routine crisis response drills.

Only through thoughtful preparation and practice can an organization withstand and manage a crisis.  

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