Responding to Catastrophe: Workplace Accident Investigations

In the aftermath of catastrophic accidents, which may result in a significant loss of life as well as immense monetary damages to the organisations involved, a thorough investigation is needed to assess the cause of the disaster and determine what steps must be taken next. This month we have the fortune of speaking with Brian Dunagan, Chief Investigator and Managing Consultant at IFO Group, who elaborates in depth on these scenarios.

Drawing upon his own experience, Brian delves into the process involved in investigating catastrophic accidents and the technology that continues to push advancement in the field. He also offers his advice to corporate and outside counsel on how best to respond to these incidents – both before and after they occur.

Can you tell us about IFO Group and the unique expertise that you and your team bring to your clients?

IFO Group offers comprehensive expertise in occupational health and safety, process safety management, fire and explosion, toxic release, mechanical integrity, engineering failure analysis, audit and incident investigation services as well as litigation support. We are probably best known to the legal profession for our catastrophic investigation support services which range from providing individual experts to litigation parties to turnkey management of incidents from the moments after the accident to the collection and long-term secure retention of critical physical and electronic evidence.

Our consultants have unique expertise in managing catastrophic incidents from the immediate aftermath, coordinating with regulatory agencies, serving as project managers for major demolition and site clearing through to evidence collection, documentation, transport and retention in the event of future litigation.

We also work with corporate and outside counsel clients who need independent evaluations of occupational health and safety and process safety programs to proactively identify gaps and avoid costly accidents and regulatory actions. Our team is also frequently called upon to provide outside resources and expertise when a company does not have the bandwidth or internal ability to address identified gaps and weaknesses. Of course, we also serve as testifying experts for cases ranging from transportation mishaps to occupational injuries and fatalities to fires and explosions.

We are probably best known to the legal profession for our catastrophic investigation support services.

What types of incidents trigger emergency calls from clients for assistance from your team?

We are usually called for catastrophic accidents, especially those involving fires, explosions, structural collapses, toxic chemical releases, pipeline failures, occupational fatalities and major injuries. These incidents typically trigger a number of immediate and cascading consequences to include intense regulatory and media scrutiny, notifications to insurers, and the involvement of numerous other affected stakeholders.

All of this adds up to a major crisis that most organisations and their legal counsellors struggle to contain without immediate outside assistance. We can be anywhere in North America in a matter of hours and we have been mobilised for international incidents on a number of prior occasions. The faster we arrive on the scene, the more effective we can be in providing assistance to our clients.

Can you give us an overview of a recent project?

Absolutely. We were called to the scene of a process-related explosion last year in New England which turned out to be a once in a generation incident for that area and quite a challenge in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. We quickly arrived on-site and assumed responsibility for the scene from the initial emergency responders and immediately went to work securing the perimeter, searching for critical evidence, interviewing witnesses and coordinating investigation and recovery efforts with OSHA, the State Fire Marshal, and the other regulatory agencies.

This was a complex accident and the explosion devastated the site, so we ultimately remained at the scene for five months as we managed the controlled demolition of the area where the incident occurred and collected the critical evidence needed to prove the cause of the incident. These efforts enabled our client to fully recover the nine-figure value of the loss from their insurer and satisfied the needs of the interested regulatory agencies while preserving the ability of the insurer to pursue subrogation claims against various parties.

The faster we arrive on the scene, the more effective we can be in providing assistance to our clients.

Can you tell us about one of your toughest or most memorable investigations?

For me, one of the toughest investigations I have been involved with was the January 2013 explosion that occurred in downtown Mexico City at the Pemex corporate headquarters office complex. Pemex (Petróleos Mexicanos), which translates to Mexican Petroleum in English, is the state-owned petroleum company managed and operated by the Mexican government. The explosion occurred in the sub-basement of a 12-storey office building late in the afternoon as the siesta was ending, which resulted in the deaths of 37 people and serious injuries to more than 100 others. This explosion drew intense international media attention and caused a major mobilisation of civil and military resources from all across Mexico in order to rapidly search the rubble of the collapsed building and rescue the survivors.

I was on the scene with my team within a few hours of the accident. We joined in the search for survivors and assisted with assessing the structural integrity of the building before turning to our investigative duties. The investigation team remained on-site for seven months in order to complete our work and gather the needed evidence to prove the cause. We also ended up providing testimony before the Mexican Senate and in other judicial proceedings as this incident resulted in criminal charges for some of the involved parties.

We determined as a result of our investigation that the explosion was fuelled by naturally occurring methane that accumulated in confined areas of the sub-basement and was inadvertently ignited by a maintenance worker who was smoking in a prohibited area. We used some really cutting-edge science involving isotopic analysis (gas fingerprinting) and radio carbon dating on this project to conclusively prove the origin of the methane. The legacy of this incident is that most commercial buildings with basements in Mexico City are now equipped with exhaust ventilation fans or gas detectors and alarms to prevent future tragedies.

As an expert in managing catastrophes, what advice can you offer to corporate and outside counsel who will be the “first responders” to these types of incidents involving their organisations?

There is a popular adage often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “Failing to plan is planning to fail”, that neatly summarises why planning is so critical to successfully managing these major investigations. This planning should begin long before an incident occurs and continue as an investigation proceeds. A key aspect of pre-event planning is identifying various probable major loss scenarios and then locating experts and outside counsel with the expertise and experience to manage these types of incidents. When potential investigation experts and outside law firms have been identified, this is a great opportunity to review and evaluate their expertise and credentials and ensure that their emergency contact information is readily available. While there will always be a number of unknown factors, some key aspects to be considered and continually re-evaluated once an incident has occurred include the following:

  • Will the investigation be managed as privileged work product?
  • Do any of the proposed outside law firms, investigators, experts, or laboratories have any potential conflicts of interest?
  • Clear scoping of the investigation;
  • Identification of needed internal and external resources – budget, staffing and equipment;
  • Evidence collection, management and retention protocols;
  • Regulatory stakeholder management and communication.

There is a popular adage often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “Failing to plan is planning to fail”, that neatly summarises why planning is so critical to successfully managing these major investigations.

As an added piece of advice for attorneys who may be called to the scene of catastrophic incidents: plan ahead and buy a good pair of safety footwear that properly fit your feet. We can almost always find the rest of any needed personal protective equipment such as hard hats, coveralls, and safety eyewear to loan to anyone needing to visit the scene, but finding footwear on short notice is a perennial problem. While that suit and those fashionable shoes look great at the office, they do not serve you very well at these incident scenes. At the very least your nice clothes will be ruined, and in the worst case you will suffer a preventable injury.

A few years ago, I was responsible for managing a site inspection for attorneys and other experts at the scene of a large fire at a chemical plant. One of the attorneys was a relatively new associate for one of the parties, who arrived at the scene in Christian Louboutin pumps with five-inch heels and a very nice suit. We offered to delay the inspection for an hour to allow her to drive down the road to the local store and buy some more appropriate attire but were firmly rebuffed. A few minutes into the inspection, she caught her foot in some debris, fell, and promptly broke her ankle. She was taken to the hospital by ambulance and got a cast on her leg while I learned a valuable lesson about being more forceful regarding site safety for attorneys.

As an added piece of advice for attorneys who may be called to the scene of catastrophic incidents: plan ahead and buy a good pair of safety footwear that properly fit your feet.

How have recent advances in technology changed how you and the other experts at IFO serve your clients?

Technology is advancing at a breakneck pace for us, just as it is for most professionals, but we are constantly working to stay at the leading edge. To offer an example, less than five years ago we would have had to hire a helicopter at more than $5,000 per hour to assist us with photographing and assessing an incident scene and we probably wouldn’t get to use that resource more than once or twice during the entire investigation. Now, since we have recently added drones to our response capabilities, we can fly over a site multiple times a day and document changes as they occur, day or night. In addition to photography and videography, the drones enable us to perform precision aerial mapping and thermography at a fraction of the cost required for these efforts just a short time ago.

As a further example, when a structure collapses or a piece of equipment causes a fire, the line between human error and mechanical failure can sometimes be difficult to ascertain as the scene rapidly perishes. We now routinely use laser scanners to capture the forensic details of a scene, such as debris dispersion and equipment positions as part of our investigation.

Data captured accurately, safely and quickly at the scene becomes powerful documentation to verify investigation details, build compelling presentations and share as evidence. These laser scanners collect millions of data points (point clouds) that can be processed and used to develop very accurate 3D computer models and animations that have become the gold standard for the average jurors who have developed high expectations of seeing forensic television quality work product during trials.

How did you get into this career field?

Well, I certainly did not graduate from high school with the expectation that I would be working in this field more than 30 years later! I actually worked my way through college by serving in emergency services; I was a firefighter paramedic and then a fire marshal. Even before I graduated from college, I was really fortunate to have some great mentors over the years and I work hard to pay that forward with the current generation of young professionals in our firm. My career has taken me all over the world and I have had extraordinary assignments ranging from global executive roles in large multinational corporations to my current job, which is serving as Chief Investigator and Managing Consultant for our firm. As Mark Twain said, “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” I have been very lucky to find a rewarding job that I really enjoy doing, at least on most days!

 

Brian Dunagan, Managing Consultant

IFO Group

12302 Sleepy Hollow Rd, Conroe, TX 77385

Tel: +1 832-403-2135

E: Bdunagan@ifogroup.com

 

IFO Group is an independent consultancy that specialises in providing advanced industrial safety and risk management consulting services. IFO has offices in the United States and Mexico, from which they support their clients globally with extensive experience in industrial safety, security, fires & explosions and risk management.

Brian Dunagan is Managing Consultant and Chief Investigator at IFO Group. Recognised in the US and internationally as an expert in process safety and occupational health and safety, and having completed a number of successful projects in the industrial sector, Brian has proven expertise in leading and managing “mega-loss” incidents related to process ssafety.

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