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Background: Central/ Western Europe, Intern, Engineering.

My current employer, a chemical engineering firm, had a fatal accident a few years ago. One of their employees was fatally injured while working with an earlier iteration of the product that I now help develop. I intern at a testing department which has a strong connection to the accident, and I'm really interested in the details of what happened, like the accident sequence and contributing factors and what changes were implemented.

  • I think the employee was in the same department, so the people I work with knew him.
  • The accident was obviously embarrassing to the company that prefers to be hush-hush.
  • It is rumoured (but unverified) that the product was externally and maliciously compromised in some way.
  • It may be beyond what I need to know, but I've been with the company for a few months by now and feel that at some point I deserve a little more insight, especially if it might have a professional benefit.
  • I am, however, not scared of the same type/sort of accident happening to me, since I think appropriate measures have been taken.

I'm scared that I'm going to stir up emotion and come across as overly curious if I ask about it, while I have reason to think that a lot of changes where implemented after the said accident.

How do I tactfully ask about the accident and the lessons-learned?

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    Try getting friendly with a coworker and asking about it. Typically after that sort of accident the company does circulate safety memos and stuff like that which should contain "clues" as to the details. – AndreiROM Jul 12 '16 at 17:43
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    How did you find out about the accident to begin with? – Jason C Jul 13 '16 at 4:48
  • If the issue has been resolved to your satisfaction and you're not worried about it happening again, what you're planning on doing amounts to rubbernecking. – TigerhawkT3 Jul 14 '16 at 11:31
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    This sounds like a Dilbert cartoon. – TheMathemagician Jul 14 '16 at 13:59
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    If you don't know the details of the accident, how can you be sure that sufficient preventative measures have been taken? I'm concerned that you may hold a false sense of security, and I would like to advise you that you may have the right to know about actual and potential dangers in the workplace. I encourage you to research your local workplace health and safety regulations to educate yourself on your rights as an employee. – StockB Jul 15 '16 at 13:05

10 Answers 10

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As an engineer developing a product that can behave in a potentially fatal way it would be your responsibility to become aware of the failure modes. If this were the circumstance I would advise asking your boss for a "Lessons learned" or auditors recommendations arising from the incident.

As an intern this becomes a bit of a grey area since your level of individual responsibility should be low enough that you are not able to introduce failures. As an intern I would be more cautious about asking your boss for these things. Unless your boss is extremely accessible I would instead reach out to a co-worker. Whoever you reach out to, remember you are looking for clarification and not gossip. If the person you ask seems uncomfortable at all, drop the subject.

Late edit: I just realized that there is a reasonable path to this information without much risk of offending people who can affect your career. Ask your Health and Safety department about the nature of the accident and the lessons learned. Of anyone in the organization they are going to be ones with the greatest responsibility to demonstrate safety culture. With them there is much lower risk of being seen as a vulture by asking about this as you feeling confident that you are safe on the job site is a part of their job (or at least it is in my organization).

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    Unless the intern is just making coffee, they're probably working on something which is at least connected to something important. Obviously their work will be reviewed ... by some humans, and we all know how reliable they are. So thinking "interns are not able to introduce failures" is at best idealistic and naive. Though my experience is from software engineering, which is rather different from chemical engineering, but humans are humans still. – hyde Jul 13 '16 at 14:24
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    @hyde As someone who is working in an chemical production facility I can say the level of review provided to the work of interns/co-op students for non-routine work is very high. In most chemical industry the cost of failure is high in terms of cost and safety (think in terms of every implementation goes straight to production and a failure can damage hardware) so it would be very uncommon to put interns into a position where they would make process related decisions. The vast majority of intern work will be collecting samples and analyzing them using specific tests following specific steps. – Myles Jul 13 '16 at 16:10
  • @hyde Also to clarify, when I say low enough that you are not able to introduce failures I mean provided that they follow the supplied procedures. Their level of responsibility for an intern should be in terms of following instructions rather than generating instructions. The lessons learned will already be incorporated into the procedures the OP is following. Their understanding of the underlying logic is less important than an engineer who may be called on to modify those procedures. – Myles Jul 14 '16 at 18:05
  • Why should an intern be less persistent in understanding how a project can fail fatally? An internship is an educational position, and a company employing interns does so to educate them. An intern should be at least as interested as an expert in how fatal failures arise in reality, even in projects they're not directly involved in. A company should be glad to share that knowledge with its interns. The only problem is when the failure arose from illegal activity, but if I'm fired for asking about my employer's criminality I don't want to work there anyway. – talrnu Jul 14 '16 at 20:37
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    @Talrnu I agree that as a company this info should be shared. However when you ask the company you are asking a person who was personally involved. As a matter of sensitivity to that person the situation should be handled gently because the need to know is not a matter of fulfilling job duties it is a matter of personal curiosity. To an intern I wouldn't say "Don't ask at all", I say "Ask cautiously and be sensitive". – Myles Jul 14 '16 at 20:57
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I have hired interns, and my own children have been interns. So please don't read malice or lack of empathy into what I am going to tell you: You deserve nothing. You cannot claim that after several months (Which is not really very long) at a company, you deserve to be told about something that went wrong and got corrected. The company existed before you joined and will continue to exist afterwards. Things have gone wrong everywhere, and been corrected, and we kind of all take it on faith that corrections have been enough.

If (and you say this is not the case) you were nervous you might be in danger, you could ask someone to reassure you. However that need for reassurance would not necessarily have to include being told all the details of what happened and what steps were taken to prevent them happening again. You are unlikely to be able to evaluate whether those steps are sufficient. And anyway, you don't feel in danger. You're just curious. There's nothing wrong with being curious, but it doesn't magically put you in a position to demand anything from anyone.

Please keep in mind that a person died. You are asking these people to satisfy your personal curiosity about the death of their coworker. The death they may feel partly responsible for. Can you imagine what discussing that is like for them? How it might hurt them to bring that up? And you think perhaps there is some slight professional benefit you might gain from having them go through it with you. It's really very selfish for you to ask them to go through that for your slight chance of a professional benefit.

Your instincts that asking about this would stir up emotions are right. But perhaps you can ask indirectly. For example, you can ask if the company has done "lessons learned" exercises on your product in the past. You can even say "I have never had a chance to read one of those documents, would it be ok if I read that one?" when someone tells you there is one. Wanting to learn is good. "Tell me more about the time your friend and coworker died at work and what you decided to do after that" is tactless and possibly a career-limiting move.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Jul 14 '16 at 0:14
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I will offer some alternate routes of looking up information that you might be able to conduct pretty discreetly:

  • If this was a fatal workplace accident then in almost any nation today it would be a reportable accident. Since this is the Western EU, for sure the regulatory rules are stringent & strictly enforced.

  • So look up the databases of the regulatory agencies. In the US the OSHA / NTSB / US-CSB all have overlapping responsibilities in the Chemicals area and they have online accident databases as well. I'm sure there are equivalent EU agencies.

  • If there was a release to the environment involved then EPA gets involved too. That generates its own paper trail.
  • Since you mention that it was a chemical processing fatality it is very likely that a release to the environment of a reportable quantity of material was involved. For the toxics etc. the reportable quantities tend to be very low, sometimes in the tens of kilograms. Even for most anything hundreds of kilos becomes a reportable quantity. In any kind of explosion, runaway reaction, leak etc. there is very often a concomitant loss of containment. And that in turn leads to a release to the environment.
  • Since a person died there likely is a legal trail too in case one of the agencies filed suit or maybe even the dependents of the person deceased. If like the rumor you heard, there was malfeasance involved it is likely that the company itself filed suit. Many legal databases are online these days. So that is another fruitful line of research.

  • If you are really motivated request someone you know but not obviously relatable to you (so that no one at your employer ever finds out that you searched) to file a FOIA request (Freedom of Information Act) with some of these bodies asking for all pertinent information related to this particular incident. There's usually tons of information that's not been posted online. Typically you must be willing to pay the photocopying charges.

  • In general, the idea behind having incident reports online is to avoid a repeat of the same mistakes in the future. I think you are smart to want to know as much as possible. And I think you can get a lot of info without ruffling too many feathers.

  • Is there an EU-wide equivalent to the Freedom of Information Act? – CWilson Jul 13 '16 at 15:06
  • @CWilson I don't know. But most countries seem to have their own version of it: e.g. For Germany Wikipedia says "In Germany, the federal government passed a freedom of information law on September 5, 2005; it was last updated on August 7, 2013. The law grants each person an unconditional right to access official federal information. No legal, commercial, or any other kind of justification is necessary." – curious_cat Jul 13 '16 at 20:21
  • Perhaps if the OP specifies his nation someone can give more exact help. – curious_cat Jul 13 '16 at 20:23
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I work for NASA at Kennedy Space Center, it can be a dangerous place and we have had many accidents, some of them have been fatal. The culture here is one of "Safety First", despite being in one of the most dangerous lines of business imaginable. Here at KSC we strongly believe in full disclosure when it comes to accidents, mishaps, and even close-calls. This disclosure includes causes, contributing factors, recommended changes, and corrective actions.

This information is made available to everyone, even the general public (I would not expect public disclosure from a private company however, but we are a Federal Government agency). We have monthly safety meetings to discuss past and current incidents, as a culture we are strongly encouraged (and often required by law) to share everything we know about past safety incidents, regardless of how trivial or catastrophic they may have been.

The importance of this open-sharing culture should not be understated, knowledge and experience of things that led to an accident (especially a fatal one) should be passed along to new employees regardless of their skill level. To be hush-hush about an incident because of fear of embarrassing the company or making people uncomfortable is simply ignorant and likely to contribute to future accidents.

My advice it to openly and honestly ask about the incident, what occurred, the contributing factors, and what steps can/should/have been taken to prevent a re-occurrence.

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    As I've commented on other answers, I'd like to remind readers that many jurisdictions including Canada and USA grant employees the right to refuse dangerous work. In Canada and probably elsewhere, employees also have the right to know about actual and potential dangers in the workplace. I think the incident referred to by the asker would fall under these guidelines. – StockB Jul 15 '16 at 13:02
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You are not asking for something directly related to your position and within the realm of your responsibilities. While you personally might derive great benefit to knowing, there is no benefit to the company for you to know.

Therefore this is something that you want to know, but do not need to know. If you ask at all, and I suggest you carefully consider whether it's worth besmirching your reputation with "nosy" or worse, then you must acknowledge that you don't need to know, and ask it as a favor without any expectation that you will be answered.

Further, you should recognize that it might involve company trade secrets, IP, and information that you, as a temporary worker (in this case, intern) might not be allowed to have or know. As such you shouldn't ask other employees, but your direct supervisor - they will know whether you are permitted this information, or who to ask if they don't know.

If, after all this, you still desire to pursue this inquiry, you might ask it face to face with something along these lines:

I would like to know more about the safety incident involving product X several years ago where I understand an employee lost their life. I understand this is a sensitive subject, and it may be that I'm not permitted to know, but having worked with that product for a few months I'd like to better understand the failure mode that was exposed, and the product or process improvements that followed. I don't believe I need to know in order to do my job, or I would have asked much earlier, but it may help me to improve my critical thinking skills to understand the process the company went through during and after that incident, and I'd appreciate knowing more about it.

At that point the ball is in their court. They will either tell you, or they'll tell you who to talk to or what to read, or they'll tell you that it's not something they can share with you at this time.

Respect their answer and you might be able to learn something without harming your business relationship.

  • Your suggested wording seems excellent, but it is quite long and detailed, and could easily trigger a negative / worried / defensive response by the end of the first line if asked face-to-face. Might it be better to print or write it out on a piece of paper and then at a suitable moment (either on bumping into your boss, or at the end of a meeting) hand him/her the letter as you part company, saying "I have a delicate question I'd like to ask. Please could you read this when convenient and let me know if you can help.". – TripeHound Jul 15 '16 at 12:58
  • @TripeHound The nice thing about face to face is 1) you can read their expression and if there's any concern after "...safety incident..." or "...lost their life..." then you can immediately back out of asking, "I can see that this is something that is difficult to talk about, please ignore that I asked." or similar. Depending on your relationship with your supervisor, a note might be more appropriate, but sometimes this kind of information is better asked and delivered in person, whereas email or a note might be considered insensitive depending on your culture. – Adam Davis Jul 15 '16 at 13:07
  • The idea of a note (definitely not email) was that I can imagine an almost-immediate negative face-to-face reaction is very likely (either because the boss really doesn't want to or can't discuss it, or "just" because they think the asker might be being prurient), so asking verbally could nearly always be awkward. Giving the boss the chance to read the whole note -- with the "why"s and showing an understanding of why it might not be the thing to ask -- may be more successful. And yes, one's relationship with the boss will play a large part in deciding which way to go. – TripeHound Jul 15 '16 at 13:46
  • @TripeHound Perhaps, but a written request in some cultures carries far more weight than a short chat. Again, it will depend on the people involved. I recommend face to face, but other relationships, cultures, businesses, and environments might dictate other methods. – Adam Davis Jul 15 '16 at 14:02
  • @AdamDavis I completely disagree with your statement "While you personally might derive great benefit to knowing, there is no benefit to the company for you to know". Knowledge about incidents has a benefit to the company because this knowledge increases the employees capacity to identify potential safety issues within their area of responsibility that may be similar to the those that resulted in an incident elsewhere, regardless of what area within the company that incident occurred. At NASA we discuss incidents across the entire Center regardless of our work environment – mknopf Aug 15 '16 at 19:39
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There is likely a regulatory body that investigated and documented the accident. In most civilized countries there are, at least for the chemical industry, like the US' CSB. Central-Western Europe should fall under that definition of "civilized", but you might need to go through the EU.

So, go find their report. You might have to request it, as they might not offer the report online, but they should have one. It's probably a substantially better source than asking around the company and getting second-hand, inaccurate, sterilized information.

And you mention this being "hush-hush". If the company covered up an industrial accident such that there was never a proper investigation, there is a high probability they have violated national and possibly (depending on when and where) EU law. In that case, you might want to think twice about your employment there.

You could, potentially, ask who investigated the accident and if they created a report. There should be someone responsible for safety at the facility; they are who you should go to. If they are not forthcoming, it likely indicates a weak safety culture. You have a right and some would argue a duty to know about the process hazards involved in your plant.

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They should disclose what happened and how you can avoid it happening to yourself. An internship is not worth risking your life for- if they don't want to discuss it, find a new place to work.

I would not assume anything has been done to prevent the situation from happening in the future because doing so would require them to admit responsibility for what happened. And if they're not discussing it, it's likely they haven't admitted responsibility.

Don't be afraid to rock the boat. Politics has no bearing on your right to a safe work environment.

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This is a tough question to answer. There may be social, political, and even legal reasons for the company not to discuss the accident. If you feel the information is worth pursuing, then go about it in the most tactful way. Talk to your supervisor and HR representative. At the very least, they should point you in the right direction, or tell you that it is an avenue that cannot be pursued.

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    This is a comment, not an answer – Amy Blankenship Jul 13 '16 at 22:57
  • @AmyBlankenship: How so? – Lightness Races with Monica Jul 14 '16 at 11:26
  • The person was asking how to ask tactfully. Your answer was basically "ask tactfully." If the OP already knew how to tactfully talk to his/her supervisor or HR representative, there wouldn't be a question to answer. – Amy Blankenship Jul 14 '16 at 15:23
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From what you describe, I believe you should not ask about the accident and lesson learned at all.

If you really need to know in association with your duties on the job, the information would be provided - even if you would prefer not to have it.

From your description, you have heard some rumours about an incident, your coworkers and supervisors are not discussing it, and you have no reason to believe your safety is at risk.

So, in reality, the only only reason you want the knowledge is that you are curious, and because you think having the knowledge might benefit you in some way. That is self-serving curiosity, which is not a sufficient reason to know anything that is considered sensitive by your employer or other employees.

So my advice would be to not pursue the information at all. Keep focused on the work you are supposed to be doing. If you are going to request information, request information that is appropriate to doing your job as well as possible. By that sort of behaviour, earn the trust of your coworkers and management.

If it turns out that you need the information as part of your job, you will have a genuine reason to request it, and be trusted to receive it. If that happens, handle the information appropriately and respectfully - as would be expected of any trusted employee.

If it turns out that you are never in a circumstance where you need the information, then keep your curiosity in check.

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External approach

Besides going through your company internally, you may be able to learn more through outside avenues.

And educating yourself this way first may (a) clue you in on where to get more info within your company, and (b) make you appear as a seriously interested professional rather than a nosey gossip.

Regulatory bodies

The Answer by Kappler suggests checking with regulatory agencies for any reports. To my mind, possibilities include:

  • chemical industry body
  • trade union
  • government regulatory body
  • police & fire & hazmat agencies

Public disclosure laws

If your country or the EU has public disclosure laws akin to:

…you may be able to formally request any documents related to the incident.

The staff assigned to handling these formal public-disclosure requests are trained in compliance with the law. So you will likely get a better, faster, and fuller response through this channel rather than a casual request to other clerks in the agencies.