Responding to and Investigating a Possible Suicide at a Worksite
Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve explored the prevention of suicide at a worksite by discussing how to create a psychologically safe workplace, and how to identify and assist workers who may be at risk. This post focuses on how to respond to and investigate a possible suicide at a worksite.
Crisis Response for a Possible Suicide
When there is a fatality at the worksite, reactions by co-workers may not make sense. Some workers who only knew the deceased in passing may be overcome with grief. Others who worked with the deceased daily may appear unaffected. When it is a suspected suicide, supervisors may also have feelings of guilt for not recognizing signs.
Be aware that there is more potential for suicidal ideation at the worksite now, especially among those who are burdened with significant personal stress. This is referred to as “suicide contagion,” when the exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one’s family, one’s peer group, or through the media results in an increase in suicidal behaviors. It is management’s priority to provide support for workers who have been affected, as well as manage communications in an ethical way.
In your response plan, consider the following.
- Always contact law enforcement immediately when a fatality at a worksite is a suspected suicide. Law enforcement will process all non-natural deaths in the same manner as a crime scene.
- Contain the crisis. Keep all unauthorized people away from the site and do not disturb the site until you have received permission from law enforcement.
- Law enforcement, along with victim advocates, typically notify the deceased’s family members of a suicide.
- Provide prompt, accurate information to employees after the family is informed but do not discuss sensational details.
- The family may have more questions than law enforcement answered and will ask you for details. Answer the family’s questions while avoiding unnecessary traumatizing details.
- Offer to bring the deceased’s belongings left at the workplace to the family at a time that is good for them.
- Keep a list of all food and gifts received for the family, and let them know about anyone who has expressed offers to help or concern.
- All private and public communications should be respectful and empathetic (be prepared to be the target of anger or blame from distraught workers).
- Listen carefully to the needs of employees, and link those in need to resources.
- Promote healthy grieving. Be more visible. Check-in with workers more.
- Prepare for difficult anniversary reactions on the date of the fatality or at future events where workers interacted with him/her before the fatality (such as at an annual company picnic).
Crisis response is important in so many ways because it affects so many people. Handling it with thought and compassion will aid the healing process for everyone in the workplace.
The true numbers for how many fatalities in hazardous, high-risk jobs have been caused by suicide (and are classified as accidents) are unknown. These types of jobs are inherently dangerous, and access to means to commit suicide is a major risk factor for suicide. So, every fatality should be investigated thoroughly.
A TapRooT® Investigator would approach a possible suicide investigation the same way he or she would approach any fatality.
- Plan the investigation using a SnapCharT®. What information is known? What still needs to be collected?
- Collect information/evidence identified in the planning stage above, and add it to the SnapCharT®.
- Review the SnapCharT® to define Causal Factors (any mistakes, errors or equipment failures that occurred that led to the fatality).
- Analyze each Causal Factor for root causes using the Root Cause Tree®.
- Develop fixes using SMARTER and the Corrective Action Helper®.
- Report findings.
Even if rumors are flying about suicidal intent or depressive tendencies of the deceased, it is essential to follow the process in the TapRooT® System to minimize bias and uncover the facts. Don’t decide without investigating further that the fatality could only be due to severe depression, (even if depression was clearly present), and close the investigation. There may be much more to learn.
For example, a depressed person may make a mistake due to fatigue or substance abuse that leads to fatality. Also, there are common mistakes that lead to tragic accidents in our workplaces every day such as wearing insufficient PPE or not following a procedure. Keep looking for things in the system that need to be fixed to avoid another potential tragedy.
Additional Considerations for Investigating a Possible Suicide
Any fatality investigation is complex, but there are pieces of information investigators should look for that indicate possible suicide, including:
- any information collected indicating a motive or intent by the deceased to take his or her own life.
- statements from co-workers based on their knowledge of the deceased about any indication of motive or intent the deceased may have given them.
- web browser history of suicidal topics on the deceased’s work phone or computer.
- public social media postings.
- written materials (such as a suicide note or other writings).
- the presence of a firearm or other means of death at the scene (pharmacological overdose, hanging).
- wounds that appear self-inflicted.
The final determination of suicide is made by the medical examiner/coroner. Many suspected suicides are later classified as accidental or undetermined. However, a diligent workplace investigation may uncover the presence of activities that suggest suicidal intent. No matter how classified, it is important to swiftly implement Corrective Actions for any root causes possibly driving problems in the workplace that contribute to suicidal ideation (such as bullying, job pressures, or unrestricted access to high-hazard areas).
The best approach to suicide prevention is a coordinated system of strategies that address suicide risk from proactive prevention to intervention to postvention. Here are some additional resources.
I hope this series has been helpful in creating a healthier workplace culture. Events over the past few years have ushered in a new era of mental health issues in the workplace but preventative measures save lives. Please contact us if we can be of support.