A death at the workplace

The death of a work colleague from an accident or disease is a tragedy. One of the most important things a union can do is to help prevent deaths. But if a death does occur, we need to make sure that sensitive support is provided to co-workers, family and friends.

Dealing with grief takes time. It is a normal response to death, trauma and loss. People need support at different times and in different ways. What happens in a workplace following a death can be a very important part of the process. Below are some suggestions for health and safety reps/delegates.

Each workplace and circumstance will be different, but the following can be used as a guide. It is often better to do more and keep up contacts with family and friends of the deceased than to just make the effort at the beginning. People are often left alone after the initial contact and the funeral.

When a death occurs

  • Ensure that the area is safe.
  • Ensure that the employer notifies WorkCover immediately. This is a legal requirement under the Victorian OHS Act (see Notifiable Incidents).
  • Check that the employer is notifying the family (or next of kin) as soon as possible, in person preferably. Co-workers may have information that can assist the employer/police in doing this.
  • Contact your union organiser to inform him/her of the death.
  • Check that the family is informed about the circumstances of the death. Being left asking questions is often very difficult for the family.
  • Sometimes members of the family may want to come to the workplace, or request a religious person to come to attend the body. Ensure the employer gives the family the opportunity to do this.
  • When the dead person is removed from the site, consider a guard of honour to farewell them (that is, arrange for co-workers to be present).
  • Ensure that as health and safety representative, you are involved in the investigation of the fatality to properly identify the causes. Remember: all workplace fatalities are preventable.

For the workers after a death has occurred

  • Ensure that workers be allowed to go home on full pay for the remainder of the day.
  • A counsellor should be available on site as soon as possible, for individuals as well as collective discussions. Individuals may be more comfortable with counselling away from work (note: this must on be just a one-off arrangement).
  • Check to see the employer has asked the family if they wish to visit the workplace, including if everyone is agreeable, for the family and co-workers to meet and talk.
  • Remember that any co-workers interviewed (eg by the employer, the insurance company or the WorkSafe investigators) have the right to ask that you as the OHS representative, be present. If necessary, contact the union for further advice.

Remember: it is important that the family and workmates are aware that the WorkSafe process and the formal investigation of the incident takes time. For more details contact your union's health and safety officer.

Before and After the Funeral

  • Check to see if the family would like co-workers to assist with the funeral, eg as pall bearers, guard of honour.
  • Ensure that anyone who wishes to attend is given paid leave to do so.
  • Check to see that the union is sending flowers and/or representatives to the funeral

In the first month after the Funeral

  • A ceremony in honour of your deceased colleague should be arranged. This would be a good time to invite the family to attend the site. The ceremony should allow people to talk about the death and their own loss. This could be organised by a joint union/management group. The Creative Ministries Network may be able to help or conduct the ceremony.
  • Check with the union organiser that the family has been contacted expressing the condolences of the union and that the family is made aware of all entitlements, the name of the union solicitor and support groups (see contact list below).

After the first month

  • Counselling needs to still be available for employees. Remember people will deal with death and grief in their own way and time. Some people fear that talking about these feelings will only make things worse. But holding on to feelings of stress and grief generally makes a person feel worse over time.
  • Consider an appropriate memorial to the deceased. Discussions can be held with the family and management about a tribute: eg an ongoing health and safety award, a memorial plaque, a tree.
  • Ensure that the family is receiving assistance with the workers compensation system and that all payments are made without any obstacles from the employer, WorkCover or the insurers. Report any difficulties to your union.

The First Anniversary

  • Ensure that this is honoured in some way, eg observe a minute's silence, light a candle, conduct a ceremony of remembrance. The family may wish to be involved.

International Day of Mourning

  • Remember the deceased and other workers killed and injured at work on 28th April: International Day of Mourning. Participate in any activities the Trade Union movement is holding on that day.

More Information

WorkSafe has a number of fact sheets:

Useful contacts:

Family Support Officer, WorkSafe Victoria - Provides support and information throughout the legal process and assistance in accessing counselling and other support. Phone: (03) 8663 5460

Creative Ministries Network A Uniting Care Agency, supported by the Victorian Workcover Authority. Provides Work Related Grief Support - both individual and group - to those who have lost a loved one to any form of work related death, including asbestos related disease, and where work has played a role in bullying and suicide. 03 9692 9427 or Email Bette Phillips

Incolink Counselling and financial assistance for the building industry. 03 9639 3000

State Coroners Office Counselling and Support Service - Family Information Service 1300 309 519.

Bereavement Counselling and Support Service Bereavement counselling for families and children (not a crisis support service) For further information phone (03) 9265 2100, fax (03) 9265 2150 or email [email protected]

Compassionate Friends Self-help group offering friendship and understanding to bereaved parents. 24 Hour Grief Support Phone: 03 9888 4944 Freecall:1800 641 091 (Website)

Lifeline Offers a 24 hour/7 day a week counselling, information and referral service. 13 11 14

Kids Help Line 24 hour counsellling service for children and young people. 1800 551 800 (Website)

National Association of Loss and Grief Free bereavement telephone counselling service. 03 9329 4003 Country Victoria freecall: 1800 100 023

Mercy West Grief Service Free bereavement counselling for the Western Suburbs (based at Sunshine). 03 9364 9838 (Website)

Griefline (telephone counselling) 03 9935 7400

Last amended January 2017