THE pictures of passengers trying to evacuate the Costa Concordia cruise ship after it collided with rocks have been terrifying. To onlookers, the situation appeared to be very chaotic and out of control as passengers tried to escape to dry land.
The case of the Costa Concordia has served as a stark reminder of how, unexpectedly, major health and safety issues can arise, often resulting from a split second decision or action, which can lead to catastrophic consequences.
It also underlines how important it is for businesses to be prepared for such unexpected and unwanted incidents.
Clearly, every business hopes that it will never experience a major health and safety incident, and certainly not an incident which results in a fatality. However, incidents can happen at any time, and can affect even the most responsible of organisations. If current press reports are to be believed, the Costa Concordia case highlights only too well how the actions or decisions of one employee can have far reaching consequences.
Of course, in the face of such a disaster, human concerns come to the fore and all efforts are focused on helping the people involved in or directly affected by what has happened. But it would be naïve to ignore the prospect of a criminal investigation being commenced in the first hours after an incident. Captain Francesco Schettino was arrested and subjected to police questioning within hours of arriving on shore. His employers have also been subject to close scrutiny.
In the UK, it is the role of the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities to investigate breaches of health and safety law, and where a fatality has occurred the police will also be involved. The investigation into the cause of an incident will begin very quickly, within hours of the regulator being informed that an accident has happened (and employers are legally required to inform the regulator as soon as possible after the accident).
In this situation the investigation moves quickly and the regulator is likely to have a lot of questions and requests to put to the employer. It is therefore important that you are organised and have an emergency plan in place to help you cope in this pressurised situation.
Regulators are likely to want to see documents including policies, procedures, training records and risk assessments, they may want to interview staff who witnessed what happened and they may serve an enforcement notice requiring the employer to take immediate steps to improve working practices. Handling the investigation can take up a huge amount of resource, and this is without factoring in the dealing of questions and inquiries from customers or the press who may have picked up on the story.
The first hours and days after an accident are critical in determining the final outcome of a regulatory investigation. How an organisation handles itself during this period will leave a lasting impression with the regulator and evidence gathered at this time may form a critical part of the prosecution case in future. For this reason it is important that businesses do plan for the worst and make sure they have strong advice close at hand and a crisis management plan ready to implement should the worst happen. Such a crisis plan should, of course, link back to the organisation's ongoing compliance system so that you can quickly and effectively demonstrate that the business understands and implements its regulatory duties.
:: Anna Hart is a health and safety associate at leading law firm Dickinson Dees