This section gives you specific information about the investigation of deaths that occur at work or that are related to the workplace. You should read this section with the general sections in the guide.
What is a work-related death?
A work-related death is defined by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as: “a fatality resulting from an incident arising out of or in connection with work.” It covers:
- • The death of a worker during the course of his or her employment.
• The death of a member of the public arising from work activities.
• The death of a member of the public in an incident like a train crash.
• Some work-related road deaths which require an investigation into a company’s working practices, such as a lorry driver working excessive hours.
The common feature of all these deaths, whether they involve a worker or a member of the public, is that they raise questions about whether the working practices of a company or organisation were adequate or not.
Will there be an inquest?
You would normally expect an inquest to take place following a work-related death. An inquest is required when a death is “unnatural” which is likely to be the case in most work-related deaths. In most cases the inquest will be heard in front of a jury.
Who investigates work related deaths?
All work-related deaths will be reported to one of a number of regulatory bodies, depending on where the incident took place and the circumstances surrounding the death:
- • The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities which are responsible for the investigation and prosecution of health and safety offences.
• The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), which is responsible for the investigation and prosecution of offences when the death takes place in British waters or on a UK-registered ship.
• The fire authorities, which are responsible for the investigation and prosecution of fire safety offences when the death is a result of a fire.
• The police, who will investigate whether or not the death was the result of manslaughter by a company or an individual.
• The Crown Prosecution ServiceThe CPS is responsible for deciding whether or not there is enough police evidence to undertake a criminal prosecution for a general criminal offence (e.g. manslaughter) both before and in some cases after the inquest, and whether or not a prosecution is in the public interest. (CPS), which is responsible for deciding whether any individual or company should be prosecuted for the offence of manslaughter.
The purpose of these investigations are:
- • to make sure that there are no continuing risks and make the situation safe;
• to undertake a criminal investigation.
Should I obtain legal advice?
If you have any concerns about the investigation or the inquest, or if you want to consider making a claim for compensationA payment of money in recognition of certain kinds of suffering or injury, also called damages., you should take further advice, including legal advice. You may find that a solicitor is only interested in issues relating to compensationA payment of money in recognition of certain kinds of suffering or injury, also called damages., whilst you are concerned about issues of accountability. CompensationA payment of money in recognition of certain kinds of suffering or injury, also called damages. (also called damagesA payment of money in recognition of certain kinds of suffering or injury, also called damages.) is one important way of establishing accountability if an employer has been negligent.
Unfortunately, since the employers’ insurance will probably pay for the compensationA payment of money in recognition of certain kinds of suffering or injury, also called damages., many families do not feel this is an adequate way to hold them to account. That is why it is important to ensure that there is a good investigation by the police and the regulatory agencies and that proper consideration is given to whether the company and/or an individual should be prosecuted.
Can a trade union help?
If the bereaved person was a member of a trade union, the union may provide you with free legal representation at the inquest and help you in any claim for compensationA payment of money in recognition of certain kinds of suffering or injury, also called damages.. The trade union may be able to take further action, particularly in relation to any safety issues for the company involved.
Can anyone be prosecuted if mistakes have been made?
Work-related deaths often lead to questions about the practices and safety standards of an employer and there may be grounds for criminal charges. There are two sorts of offences that could have been committed in relation to a work related death:
- • an offence under regulatory law like the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, requiring evidence of systemic failures in working practices;
• an offence of manslaughter, which requires evidence of gross negligence.
The criminal investigation Work Related Deaths: A Protocol of Liaison was established in April 1998 encouraging the importance of the investigatory bodies working together to investigate thoroughly, and to prosecute appropriately, those responsible for work-related deaths in England and Wales. The Protocol can be obtained from the HSE and is available on the HSE website (PDF).
In every case a police officer of supervisory rank (sergeant or above) should come to the scene of the death and undertake an initial assessment of whether a full-scale manslaughter investigation should take place. If the officer decides against it, the case is referred to the HSE or one of the regulatory bodies noted above. The investigating body can refer the case back to the police at any time during the course of the investigation if there is “evidence that indicates that manslaughter may have been committed.”
The investigation: what should you expect?
This can take several months to complete. During this time the police and the HSE will conduct interviews with key witnesses, instruct experts, analyse evidence collected on site, look into the working practices and/or activities which caused the fatality, keep the coronerThe legal official who orders a post-mortem and who is in charge of the inquest procedure. updated with the progress of the investigation and investigate the conduct of senior managers and company directors with particular responsibility for the day to day running of the organisation.
The HSE should appoint a named person or a Family Liaison Officer (FLO) to keep you informed of developments during the investigation. If you have any concerns with the investigation, raise these with your FLO or the named contact you have from the HSE.
You can read more about how the HSE investigates work-related deaths here (PDF).
What will happen at the inquest?
If a manslaughter investigation is taking place, a full inquest will be delayed until after a criminal trial. It is then up to the coronerThe legal official who orders a post-mortem and who is in charge of the inquest procedure. to decide after the trial whether there will also be an inquest. It is extremely unusual for there to be an inquest after a criminal trial. If there is no manslaughter investigation, and only the HSE is investigating, the inquest will take place before the HSE decides whether or not to prosecute. This is likely to be about 12-18 months after the death.
It is important that you ensure the coronerThe legal official who orders a post-mortem and who is in charge of the inquest procedure. knows what witnesses you want to be called to the inquest. You or your legal representative should write to the coronerThe legal official who orders a post-mortem and who is in charge of the inquest procedure. listing the witnesses you want to attend. It is not uncommon for coroners to decide not to call company directors or managers. This often means that crucial evidence indicating failures on the part of the company may not be heard at the inquest. This can then mean that a jury is
prevented from giving an unlawful killing verdict even when this might seem appropriate.
Can I see the documents created during the investigation?
No, there is no pre-inquest disclosure of documentary evidence. Unlike inquests into deaths in prison and in police custody, the regulatory authorities like the HSE refuse to hand over any documents before the inquest. They will however give some documents to the coronerThe legal official who orders a post-mortem and who is in charge of the inquest procedure.. Ultimately the coronerThe legal official who orders a post-mortem and who is in charge of the inquest procedure. will decide what documents can be released to the bereaved family at the pre-inquest stage and it is important to request copies of all documents.
What verdict can the inquest reach?
The verdicts that can be left to a jury, if the evidence supports it, after a workplace death inquest are:
- • Unlawful killing – where a worker died as a result of conduct on the part of some individual considered to be “grossly negligent.”
• Accidental death – this covers a large range of situations, from a mishap to a death caused by conduct which would be considered to be negligent but is not so negligent that a verdict of unlawful killing is appropriate. It may be followed by a written narrative identifying any systemic failures in working practices which may have come to light during the inquest.
• Open verdict – when the evidence given does not disclose enough about how someone died, for instance if there was no eyewitness, so there is not enough evidence to return another verdict.
Can the HSE prosecute after the inquest?
Yes. The HSE will decide after the inquest whether to prosecute for health and safety offences. It only prosecutes companies in about 20% of workplace deaths. 70% of these prosecutions take place in the magistrates’ court rather than the Crown Court, where there would be the possibility of an unlimited fine. The failure to prosecute in the Crown Court has meant that the average fine for a conviction following a workplace death is just over £18,000.
The HSE very rarely prosecutes senior managers or directors. Between 1996 and 1998, the HSE did not prosecute a single manager or director relating to any one of over 500 workplace deaths. It is therefore important to make sure that you or your legal representative looks carefully at the decisions made by the HSE.
- • make sure that they have considered properly whether to prosecute a company director or manager;
• make sure that, if they prosecute, they make attempts to get the magistrate to refer the case to the Crown Court.
In the event the HSE decide not to prosecute, make sure you scrutinise the decision – ask for detailed reasons why they are not going to prosecute the company and/or senior manager(s) or directors. You may prefer to meet the HSE to raise your concerns about the decision as well as writing to them.
What information will I get from the HSE?
The HSE has a policy of providing information to bereaved families once the case has been formally closed. At the beginning of every case, a HSE inspector should make contact with you both by letter and personally. It is also the HSE’s policy to explain their involvement, give details of the investigation, its conclusions, including the circumstances of the death and explain what action is to be taken and the reasons for such actions.
Make sure that you make use of this right to be kept informed by the HSE of what they are doing. Don’t feel shy of making your views known to them or providing them with any information that you feel might help their investigation. It is our experience that often families may get to know of information that is not known by the HSE.
After the inquest
You may also want to raise any concerns about what happened after you have heard all the evidence at the inquest.
You could consider contacting: