Contact with relatives of people killed through work activities
This guidance explains the practical arrangements for following HSE's policy on contacting and communicating with bereaved families in connection with work-related deaths.
The general principles describing how front line staff should treat members of bereaved families are set out in HSE's policy statement on working with victims. This OG develops those principles into roles and responsibilities for staff, and ways of engaging with families that can help to create a positive relationship and lead to a well-managed outcome.
The guidance on the inter-personal aspects of engaging with bereaved families and making initial contact are universally applicable, but there are procedural differences in Scotland. These are set out in Appendix 1 and should be read in conjunction with the Enforcement Guide for Scotland.
The Principal Inspector is responsible for:
- ensuring that early contact is made with the bereaved family
- allocating the lead for communicating with the family to an appropriate member of the team with sufficient knowledge and skills for the task
- ensuring that the primary contact person with the family is someone other than the lead investigator if:
- a member of the family is a potential defendant, or
- the circumstances could make performing both roles difficult, particularly an incident involving the death of a child or young person
- ensuring the family is provided with timely information about the conduct of the investigation
- overseeing and monitoring the progress of the contact arrangements through to the agreed conclusion of our involvement, including the outcome of the investigation
- taking a personal lead with the family in complex or sensitive cases, or where relational difficulties arise for other staff involved
- ensuring the health and safety of staff, including those in administrative roles who may take calls or handle material with distressing content, by applying HSE's policy on exposure to potentially traumatic situations.
In meeting these objectives, the Principal Inspector should consider the issues and take or delegate the action as set out under the headings below, in the appropriate sequence according to circumstances.
- liaise with the police* to establish what is known about the family, how to contact them, and co-ordinate communication arrangements with the bereaved relatives (* and / or the Coroner's Officer, Procurator Fiscal or dutyholder where appropriate)
- establish whether the police have appointed a Family Liaison Officer (FLO), and if so, that it is appropriate for the FLO to be HSE's main point of police contact regarding the family
- make early contact with the family, even if the police have the lead in the joint investigation, through the FLO, by letter or phone
- seek to arrange a single point of contact within the next of kin wherever possible, recognising that multiple communications may be necessary to serve all branches of extended or fragmented families
- offer to meet the family as soon as they feel they are ready, considering a joint visit with the FLO where appropriate; if the family declines, inform them in writing that the offer of a meeting will remain open should they have a change of mind at a later date
- communicate with the family by phone or letter if visiting them is impracticable owing to long distances (including relatives overseas) or other difficulties, but still offering to meet if the opportunity arises, eg a family member visits the area
- provide the FLO, where appointed, with a written brief on HSE's role where it is not possible for HSE to visit the family
- send a personalised letter in all cases, so that the family has something to refer to; the context may be to offer a first meeting (enclose a copy of the leaflet - England/Wales or Scotland) or to confirm the next steps after a meeting.
Meeting the family
- prepare for the visit, paying particular attention to introductions, foreseeable cultural matters and avoiding inadvertent offence (see Appendix 2: Engaging the family – practical aspects)
- explain our role and our part in the joint investigation, where relevant
- inform them about the known facts of the incident are far as they are disclosable, answering the family's questions as openly as possible
- take care not to disclose investigation material, for example witness statements or records of interview, in order to avoid prejudice caused by pre-trial disclosure to third parties
- give reasons why we may have to withhold certain information
- inform them of any early enforcement action taken to prevent a recurrence, and our commitment to a thorough investigation
- explore whether they may have information relevant to the investigation
- provide our contact details and a copy of the information leaflet (if not sent previously) with supporting explanation
- agree the basis for further communication, preferably at times when there is information to impart rather than at a set frequency.
Key events for keeping the family informed
In England and Wales, examples of the key events during the HSE investigation when contact should always be made with the family are:
- significant developments in the investigation
- to inform about or explain any lengthy delays with the investigation so that they are not misunderstood as inactivity or lack of interest
- to take Victim Personal Statements
- after the defendants are told they are to be prosecuted (if this occurs before the inquest)
- before the inquest, to ensure the family know the date and an explanation given on what is likely to happen during the inquest
- after the inquest to explain what will happen next
- after any decisions made by the police or CPS, for example when they have ruled out negligent homicide (and normally communicated by them)
- after a decision by HSE not to prosecute under health and safety law following completion of the investigation
- after summonses have been served, to confirm to the family who has been charged and with what offences
- before legal proceedings, to inform the family of the hearing dates and location
- at the final court hearing or in writing soon afterwards, to conclude HSE's engagement with the family.
Managing the family's needs and expectations
- consider the potential aspects of diversity that may apply, including the nature of the family, culture and religion, and language (see Diversity)
- guide the family to the information in the leaflet and on the HSE website about the organisations that provide support services for the bereaved, since it is beyond the remit of HSE staff to become directly involved in such matters
- deal sensitively and honestly with the family's wishes to know how their relative died and about the surrounding circumstances; it saves them from discovering these details for the first time in a public forum
- exercise care when showing the family photographs of the incident or responding to their request to see them, doing so selectively and telling them what each one shows so that they can decide whether to look at them
- handle any request by the family to visit the site of the incident by passing it to the police where they retain the lead, or otherwise to the dutyholder, advising the family accordingly
- avoid giving the impression to the family that HSE will, or is likely to, take legal proceedings in connection with the incident, reserving any comment until the formal decision is made, and explaining why
- advise the family on court procedure where appropriate, and where possible, make contact at the hearing
- give early consideration to the exit strategy for concluding the engagement with the family so that the whole process can be managed towards a positive end point.
HSE is committed to being as open as possible in providing families with details about the progress of an investigation whilst complying with the statutory bounds of disclosure, and without prejudicing any subsequent legal proceedings. HSE's policy statement on victims is based on the Prosecutors' Pledge, introduced by the Attorney General in 2005. The policy extends the scope of the Pledge to all investigations, establishing a public expectation of how we will engage with bereaved families.
The 'Advice and Information for Bereaved Families' pack has been replaced by a single HSE leaflet (there are versions for England and Wales as well as Scotland) which provides the family with information about how the investigation will proceed, the legal processes that are likely to follow, and signposts to HSE's website for support services they may find helpful.
Experience has shown longer-term advantages in meeting the family early. It demonstrates commitment to them, provides the family with a contact name and face, and enables them to have a better understanding of our role, including the scope and purpose of our investigation.
However, some bereaved people may be unable to face any communication with investigators in the immediate aftermath of an incident, but may want information at some later stage, so flexibility over timing is important.
Recording and reporting
Records should be kept of all meetings in notebooks and on COIN, and it is essential to record what is disclosed to the family. The main points discussed with the family should be confirmed in writing if they so request or if considered appropriate to have a shared record of decisions and actions.
Health and safety
There are risks to staff from the experience of dealing with bereaved families which should be recognised and managed in accordance with HSE guidance.
There are several aspects to diversity to take into account and respect when engaging with bereaved families.
The nature of the family
- it may take a variety of forms: close-knit, extended, split, and in some cases individuals may be quite isolated
- it should be taken include partners (including same sex partners), siblings, children, guardians and others who have a direct and close relationship to the deceased
- close relatives may be resident overseas.
Culture and religion
- death customs, funeral arrangements and beliefs vary greatly across communities and religions; information is available by searching the internet
- in many cultures, relatives will either see or become aware of the nature and extent of the injuries to the deceased
- in cases of uncertainty about what to do or what to refrain from doing when meeting the family, it is acceptable to ask them to guide you on points of protocol.
- when translating and interpreting services are necessary, it is important to obtain accurate information about what is required, to avoid making assumptions, and to be aware that translating and interpreting are completely different functions
- for translation services, it is important to establish which languages are needed because it is not uncommon for written and verbal communication to be different.