Workplace Safety: How to Respond to a Catastrophe

No business is immune to disaster, and none should take workplace safety for granted. This month we hear from David Prince, Managing Consultant at IFO Group, who explores what happens in the lead-up to a catastrophic incident and it can be dealt with in the aftermath. How can legal counsel mitigate the impact of a disaster or – better yet – make sure one never occurs?

Could you please tell us what initially sparked your interest in safety management?

Early in my career, I worked in industries such as structural steel, mining, oil, and gas, as well as pulp and paper. I was a blue-collar worker, lacing up my boots daily and working in high-risk applications. Safety was not a focus in the workplace back then, and I had three near misses that almost took my life. These incidents helped create a heightened awareness of the importance of a safe working environment and instilled a desire within me to help bring workers home safely to their families. Family is so important to me; my leadership style is to be a servant leader, and I learned that I thrive through helping individuals work in a safe environment which transfers to a positive impact on the local community.

What aspects of your role at IFO do you find most interesting?

I love the ability to make a positive impact on the individuals employed by our clients. Listening is critical in consulting as our role involves hearing the voice of concern, taking note of the ideas that team members offer and implementing the processes that will vastly improve working conditions. We collaborate with site personnel on the implementation of new programs and process improvements to shift from a state of disaster to a safe working environment.

Commonly, after a catastrophic event occurs, staff are deeply concerned about their safety. It is incredibly rewarding to see the cultural shift that occurs after collaboration and involvement in the project. When the project is complete, we commonly hear feedback that worksite personnel feel empowered and are proud to be a part of the change process.

What type of incidents does your company most frequently investigate?

We are often called to assist after a catastrophic accident, especially those involving a fire, explosion, structural collapse, toxic chemical release, pipeline failure, occupational fatality and/or major injury. These types of incidents trigger immediate cascading consequences including intense regulatory and media scrutiny, notifications to insurers, and the involvement of numerous affected stakeholders. All of this adds up to a major crisis that most organisations and legal counsellors struggle to contain without immediate outside assistance. This is where the IFO Group of experts come in.

We offer our clients the latest investigative techniques and technologies to maximise the collection of critically valuable knowledge that can be gained from a loss and provide the information necessary to fully protect an organisation and its employees from future recurrences, as well as prepare for any potential litigation.

When the project is complete, we commonly hear feedback that worksite personnel feel empowered and are proud to be a part of the change process.

Our experts have investigated many incidents covering a wide range of failures in a variety of industries and circumstances. By utilising the latest in investigation project techniques and technologies – specifically developed to maximise efficiencies – we can expedite the return of an incident site to the owner and facilitate recovery operations to help reduce overall losses. Following an incident, we can also assist in developing and implementing mitigation strategies and barrier philosophies to protect workers, assets, reputations, and the environment from incident recurrences.

How can these incidents be better prevented?

The key to incident prevention is the establishment of top-down safety precedence. An organisation’s leadership team needs to set the tone that safety is first and implement a system of positive reinforcement to elevate safety awareness. Additionally, when a gap that raises a risk is discovered, leadership addresses the issue immediately without discounting it.

An example of a tragic outcome resulting from an ignored risk is the 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. This catastrophic event was caused by the failure of two rubber O-rings due to record low temperatures. NASA managers disregarded warnings from engineers about the dangers of launching in cold temperatures. Because nothing happened during the first and second launch, it became the normality of complacency, and a bias was built around it.

It is important that we consider different sets of eyes when facing a challenge or process as it can be difficult to recognise something different when it comes from the same circle of people. The IFO Group offers another set of eyes, and we can share experiences that help define the risks to be addressed.

Generally speaking, what are the key steps in the incident investigation process?

A structured approach to incident investigation helps ensure that all the causes are uncovered and addressed by appropriate actions.

Step 1 – Secure the Incident Site. In the event of an incident, the first critical step is to secure the site. This helps make the area safe and preserves the scene to assist in recovering and protecting evidence. The IFO Group has experts who can act as an incident commander to take ownership of site and implement plans on behalf of the client. The site often needs to be stabilised or demolished before it can be entered. It is common for the area to be very unsafe and thorough planning goes into securing the site to protect people and assets.

Step 2 – Plan the Investigation. Based on initial findings from securing the site, the team needs to work to confirm what expertise will be required for the material investigation. What resources will be involved? How long do you anticipate the investigation will take? Does the incident complexity require a single investigator or a team?

A structured approach to incident investigation helps ensure that all the causes are uncovered and addressed by appropriate actions.

Step 3 – Material Investigation. Once there is confirmation that the site is cleared without criminal activity and the right team is in place, the material investigation can begin. This step involves the collection of all relevant information related to the incident gathered from sources such as workers involved, witnesses, equipment on the scene and documents such as inspection reports and maintenance logs. In most cases, a catastrophic incident was not a single event but rather a chain of events. It is important to understand exactly what happened by digging into the fine details leading up to the event. What were the operating conditions? Exact weather conditions? What process were workers performing at the time of the incident? It is vital to interview site personnel to gain observations, opinions, and insights into workplace norms, workplace culture and generally accepted behaviours.

Site investigation and evidence recovery takes a significant amount of time as evidence is commonly buried or damaged by fire. Quite often, a tiny fracture of something in pile of debris is very telling evidence.

Step 4 – Analyse Data to Determine Incident Root Cause. After data and evidence is collected, it must be analysed to help find the root cause of the incident. The IFO Group has a climate-controlled inspection laboratory and workshop where we facilitate the inspection and documentation of collected evidence and artefacts from the incident. Process analysis and laboratory review are crucial and commonly involve modelling and simulation done through the input of variables – what happened before the accident, during, and after to help fully understand the sequence of events. It is important to remember that finding the immediate cause might fix the symptom of the specific incident but not the issue itself. Uncovering the systematic issues related to the incident rather than just the surface cause will successfully prevent reoccurrence.

Step 5 – Reporting & Implementation of Corrective Action Plan. Once the analysis is complete, the IFO Group creates structured reports and presents findings with recommended changes to client stakeholders. We then work with the client to implement recommendations. It is important to partner with the owner/operator and legal representation and perform services under privilege both effectively and in a timely manner.

What is the most rewarding work your firm has undertaken?

The IFO Group can make a significant impact with the type of incident that starts out as a horrific catastrophic event involving injury, loss of life or significant damage to assets. Immediately following the incident, an organisation and its employees are emotionally distressed and wary to return to the jobsite for fear of another incident. Our team of experts are experienced in helping keep the team calm and focused while establishing a crisis management plan and setting steps quickly into motion. Once that plan is in place, we then work diligently to create a workplace where safety is top of mind. It is very rewarding to watch an organisation shift their mindset around safety and change their culture from an organisation where safety was talked about to one where safety “is who we are”. Risk mitigation and a safety-first workplace become engrained in the organisational culture. That shift in perspective is so rewarding to watch happen.

It is very rewarding to watch an organisation shift their mindset around safety

Do you expect to see demand for your crisis and emergency management services increase as the business climate crisis worsens?

Yes, we expect to see an increase in both the need to respond to catastrophic incidents as well as working with organisations around preemptive planning. There are a series of contributing elements including aging infrastructure such as pipelines and processing facilities as well an ongoing shift in workforce. Organisations continue to focus on downsizing and staff reductions and in this new normal, fewer individuals are working onsite. Personnel that primarily focused on safety and compliance are not returning to the workplace. There is also an increase in regulatory activity to protect communities. As individuals retire, there are fewer of the next generation entering into the workforce who have an education focused on safety management and risk reduction.

IFO offers a series of training topics. Which of these do your clients generally find to be the most beneficial?

Training is often an outcome of an independent audit that the IFO Group has performed. Because of this, popular topics are commonly related to regulatory enforcement. Frequent training topics include Confined Space Safety, HAZCOM (Hazard Communication) and Globally Harmonised System (GHS), Life Safety and Fire Protection, Respiratory Protection and Working at Heights (Fall Protection).

The IFO Group has two certified industrial hygienists on-staff and as a result we have had an increased interest in training related to Industrial Hygiene Strategy, Hearing Conservation, Respirable Silica Management and Office Ergonomics.

We have a reputation for delivering cost-effective and impactful training tailored to all levels of the workforce with clear metrics for progress tracking. Our team emphasises interactive environments with as much hands-on practical learning as possible. IFO Group trainers can also offer prepared courses and custom packages ranging in length from 20-minute computer-based sessions to comprehensive 80-hour courses of over two weeks. These classes can be taught at our facilities, at a location convenient for the client or delivered as computer-based modules within a learning management system (LMS).

Do you have any closing thoughts on catastrophic events and incident management?

When your client experiences a major catastrophic event such as a fire or loss of life, they rely on legal counsel’s advice and expertise to help them navigate through a difficult situation. In most situations, your client has never experienced a major loss event and they do not know where to even start, so they turn to you. Lawyers are trusted experts who can provide guidance on the appropriate steps to take during this challenging time.

This is where we can help by partnering with you. The IFO Group is comprised of diversified experts in catastrophic events and incident management. We have experience managing and investigating some of the most significant catastrophic events, fires and explosions that have occurred this past decade. Get to know us before you need us. Please contact us so we may discuss how we can be your expert partner when your client calls you at 2 AM and tells you their whole world just came undone.


David Prince, Managing Consultant

IFO Group

12302 Sleepy Hollow Rd, Conroe, TX 77385

Tel: +1 832-403-2135



David Prince is Managing Consultant for the IFO Group. He has 35 years of experience working for companies such as Exxon, SGS and Bureau Veritas as a global professional who led complex industrial projects and large change management transitions. His executive and professional experience includes completing high-profile industrial inspections and investigations, revitalising global business organisations, transforming corporate cultures and expanding multinational teams and portfolios. David has a Bachelor of Science in Business Management and an MBA from Warwick Business School in England.

The IFO Group offers comprehensive consulting expertise in the following core categories: litigation and catastrophic investigation; technical and engineering services; occupational health and safety services; training and staffing services, and risk assessments and auditing. IFO Group staff are experienced in managing catastrophic incidents from the immediate aftermath, including coordinating with regulatory agencies, serving as project managers for demolition and site clearing as well as evidence collection and retention in the event of future litigation. They also serve as testifying experts for cases ranging from transportation mishaps to occupational injuries and fatalities to fires and explosions.

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