May 06, 2013 | By Mark D. Aljets

How to Deal with the Aftermath of a Catastrophic Event

From a legal perspective, tips for how to properly proceed after a serious incident

A grain dust explosion at a facility may be the most traumatic event a grain company will ever face. In the first hours after the explosion occurs, there needs to be a team in place to address all of the issues that literally will be coming at the company in rapid fire succession. 

All of the following recommendations should be ready to be implemented even when the fires may still be burning.  Some of these are common sense observations. Others may be issues a grain company has never considered. 

1) Contact your insurance company immediately

When an explosion occurs, your first priority is the well-being of anyone injured in the accident. Then, while this may seem obvious, it is imperative that your insurance company be notified immediately of the event. While the grain company may never have encountered a tragedy such as this, the odds are that the insurance company has been confronted with previous large scale losses and a team of experts can be assembled in a relatively short period of time. 

Remember, this is why you pay your insurance premiums. Your insured carrier most likely has worked with the following individuals/entities who can be retained and begin to put a plan of action in place:

  • Experienced firefighting companies which may be asked to consult with local fire departments regarding the best methods to deal with fighting the fire and the aftermath when the explosion scene may not be safe.
  • Legal counsel, who has experience in dealing with catastrophic events.
  • Experts in the industry who will be essential in attempting to determine the manner in which the event occurred. This group usually consists of industry explosion experts, origin and cause experts and experts in the engineering fields with disciplines in mechanical, electrical and process safety engineering.

2) Designation of media representative 

When the event occurs, the potential is very real that representatives of the media will rapidly descend on the scene and want immediate answers regarding how the event occurred, the names and specific information of any of the injured, as well as a “history” of the grain company, particularly if the company has had to deal with safety issues in the past.

It is critical that a representative be selected who can deal with any and all of these media requests and that the individual have the ability to be “the face of the organization” during this tremendously difficult time.

3) Designation of investigative representative

Due to the magnitude of this type of event, it is almost inevitable that governmental agencies will conduct extensive investigations regarding the manner in which the explosion occurred. It is imperative that the grain company designate one extremely qualified representative who can coordinate and respond to all investigative inquiries to ensure that accurate and consistent information is ultimately provided to agencies such as OSHA and State Fire Marshal Representatives.

4) Coordination with your own independent counsel

In the aftermath of an explosion, it is not uncommon for the entities who are most involved to have “contrary opinions” as to whom, if anyone is responsible for the event. One way to begin to address this issue is for the grain company to retain its own independent counsel to protect the company, to provide advice regarding the myriad of issues that always surface with a large loss and to assist in the inevitable litigation that arises.

This is most critical in the initial days and weeks following the event. It is essential that a thorough investigation be conducted of the scene and this is the time when cooler heads need to prevail regarding the timing of the investigation. To be sure, the grain company and the company’s insurance carrier will be tremendously anxious to clean-up the scene and rebuild in order for the company to get back to the business of operating the facility. 

Depending on the seriousness of the event, usually the governmental entities having public safety authority and responsibility will initially have jurisdiction and control of a scene. Often times it is after the governmental agency has “released” the scene when interested parties have their opportunity to inspect the site. “Interested parties” is defined as those entities whose legal rights or interest may be affected by the investigation of a specific incident, and it must be given the opportunity to inspect the scene. See National Fire Protection Association, NFPA 921, the Guide For Fire and Explosion Investigations.

Independent counsel may be able to assist in the overall coordination of matters to ensure that all interested parties are given the opportunity to conduct a full-scene examination before the site is substantially altered.

The coordination of a team of experts as outlined above is essential in dealing with the aftermath of a catastrophic event. Don’t wait until a tragedy strikes to begin to evaluate this process and to put a plan of action in place.

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