- The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently issued updated guidance to improve communication with family members of the deceased when the agency investigates a workplace fatality. While a similar 2012 directive improved communication for a time, it had fallen out of use over the years.
- More than 5,000 U.S. workers perish from falls, drownings and other workplace trauma each year, while another 95,000 die annually from long-term exposure to asbestos, silica and other toxic substances. The latter are not always recorded as workplace-related, nor are typically investigated by OSHA as other workplace deaths are.
- Organizations supporting those impacted by workplace deaths and illnesses have spoken in favor of OSHA's new directive, which details how the agency should approach family members during each step of its inspection process.
In April 2012, OSHA released its first directive, CPL 02-00-153, with guidance to ensure the agency communicates its fatality inspection procedures to the families of victims. The guidance also called for OSHA to facilitate information exchange throughout the inspection and settlement process, at no cost to affected families.
"Previously, families may not even have known there was an inspection until it came out in the media," said Tammy Spivey, founder of United Support & Memorial for Workplace Families (USMWF), which played an important role in helping make the 2012 directive a reality. "Considering how personal this is to families after a loss, this was a milestone and truly helps family members receive the closure they deserve. It answers many questions they may have regarding their loss."
Yet after its implementation nine years ago, the impact of the directive declined over time, said USMWF Executive Director Tonya Ford, who lost her uncle Bobby Fitch in a preventable workplace accident in 2009. Photos of USMWF families that had been displayed in OSHA's conference room, a visible reminder of workplace fatalities, were taken down and stored. Conferences between USMWF family members and OSHA were declined.
In July 2021, OSHA issued updated guidance on communicating with families about inspections, findings and closings of inspections. Holly Shaw-Hollis, whose husband Scott Shaw died from a preventable fall from a Philadelphia barge in 2002, cheered the move.
"A sudden, shocking death in the workplace is a terrible experience for surviving family members," said Shaw-Hollis, who serves on the board of directors for the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health (PhilaPOSH) and National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH). "In the past, communication with OSHA has not always been consistent, at a time when families need answers and solid information."
Other advocates agree it has already been useful.
"Since the newly appointed administration [took] office in 2020, the communication between USMWF, our family members and OSHA has improved immensely," said Ford. "Our photographs are being hung up again, and we are collaborating together in quarterly meetings . . . [and] working together to help families after their tragic losses."
An open line of communication with family members after workplace fatalities is critically important, Ford said.
"Although our connection and communication over the past few years had declined, we are thrilled to once again be working directly with the U.S. Department of Labor and OSHA administration in communicating and assisting each other in helping and guiding our family member victims," Ford said.
More work still needed
Progress has been made, but more needs to be done, Spivey said. The OSHA inspection results are only one piece of the puzzle to help families receive the closure they deserve.
Specifically, USMWF urges Congress to make communication with families a requirement instead of a directive.
"USMWF would like many important occupational safety and health bills and regulations to pass over the next 10 years, making workplace safety and workers’ rights a top priority," Spivey said. "In regards to the family directive, as a family-based organization, we hope that the family directive becomes a regulation that will cover state and federal plans."