Despite a reported dismal compliance to health and safety regulations in South Africa, most companies know how to act and respond directly after an incident at work that left a staff member injured. The trouble with most such situations is that businesses and employers focus so much attention on the legal aspects and ramification of what “just” happened, the practical requirements of an immediate response is far too often neglected.

The Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (COIDA) 130 of 1993 very clearly sets out what should be done after an incident, and employers and business generally comply with these requirements in anticipation and preparation of a claim to the fund to assist the injured staff member with any and all medical care to recover from the injury. (Read more: COIDA: Overview Part 1)

Also, the employer has a responsibility according to the act to provide trained first aid assistance in the workplace. (Read more: First Aid in the workplace)

All this good, sound information is followed by a very strongly emphasised HOWEVER.

Accidents do not happen on schedule, they are unexpected, unplanned, and almost never happen when the circumstances are “ideal” to respond in the precisely described manner.

There is usually a time-lag, a few moments between the incident and the arrival of trained help that can, at least to the very shocked co-workers, seem to be an eternity. It is human nature to want to help the injured person but unfortunately our instincts are sometimes counter to what the injured person may require.

We spoke with an Intermediate Paramedic (anonymous for professional reasons) about how employers can better equip their full staff compliment to act in a manner that promotes the recovery, and in some extreme cases, survival of a seriously injured teammate after a workplace accident.

“Train everyone, or at least as many as you can,” says the veteran of thousands of accident scenes, from mild sprains to tragically fatal ones. “This may sound excessive, but in the few seconds after a serious incident waiting for the first aider to arrive very necessary and helpful steps can already be taken to support the injured worker. And far too many mistakes can be made that can hinder successful treatment.”

Full first aid training up to level 1 for everyone would be ideal but understandably cost prohibitive. However, he recommends regular team talks to refresh the most basic response guidelines to all staff in the workplace.

These guidelines should, at minimum, include the following:

Before attempting to assist the injured person, you must calm yourself. A calm, cool and clear head is needed in any and every accident or injury situation.

  1. First, check if the injured worker is in immediate danger or at risk of further injury due to the circumstances of the accident, and if possible, make the situation safe
  2. Call for help – the first aider of the workplace or the nearest medical emergency centre if the injury is severe
  3. Step one is critical because step 3 is the emphasis on not moving the injured person under any circumstances short of preserving his life due to a danger identified in step 1.
  4. Stabilise the injured person – try to keep them from moving to guard against exacerbating a potential injury to the neck or back. Keep the injured person calm and still.

This step becomes tricky when the injured person may be vomiting that may cause the injured person to aspirate the fluid into his lungs. In this case, all practical attempts must still be made to stabilise the neck, however the person should be turned onto his side into the recovery position to keep the fluid out of the lungs. Never place an injured person in a sitting position.

  1. Clear the air around the injured person, that is, do not let a close crowd form around the injured person. This can increase the panic the injured person is experiencing when feeding off the stressed or panicked reactions of persons standing around. Increasing the panic experienced by the injured person may lead to panic injury such as an anxiety attack, triggering an epileptic episode or even heart attack.
  2. In addition to step 5, do your best to distract the person from an obvious injury. Try to let them not see any physical damage that may be present.
  3. Do nothing else until a first aider/medically trained person arrives.

From experience, the paramedic says that people do not pay enough attention to their surroundings and do not know their location and what medical and/or emergency resources are available in the immediate vicinity. By this he means knowing where the nearest, appropriate medical centre to respond to an emergency is located, and how to contact them. He urges businesses and employers to gather as many emergency numbers as possible and make them readily available. It is well known that people in shock have trouble thinking and making decisions, having the information already available can save crucial minutes when every minute may count.

A valuable piece of advice the paramedic offers, is that the person calling for help be as specific about the incident and what immediate injuries are visible. This enables the call dispatcher to rate the severity of the emergency which in turn enables the paramedics responding to the call to prepare better for what they may be dealing with when they arrive at the scene. It is also very helpful to an arriving emergency response team if, in the case where an injured person is unconscious or otherwise unable to respond to questions, to have the person’s critical medical information available – for example, if he has a heart condition, asthma, epilepsy, etc.

The 5 golden rules after any accident or injury is:

  1. Keep the injured person calm.
  2. Keep the injured person stabile and do not move them.
  3. Get help as quickly as possible and do as little else as possible until trained, skilled and/or experienced help arrives.
  4. Be specific when calling emergency services
  5. Train as many people as possible

As a final suggestion, he suggests posting these vital rules in the workplace along with the contact information for the nearest medical emergency response resources.

The more prepared co-workers are for a sudden emergency, the better they will be able to respond in an appropriate manner when it counts.