How to manage first 30 days after an accidental farm death.
Originally published at Farm Futures in their October 2022 issue.
Farming is a dangerous profession, and the chance of severe injury or death is real. Most of us have at least heard of the work-related or farm-related death of someone we know. Sometimes, these are children, but often, these deaths are of owners or key decision-makers. Unfortunately, several of our clients have been through farm-related deaths, which is never easy.
Farms have contingency plans for chemical spills, manure spills, and other events mandated by law. However, contingency plans for losing key decision-makers are not mandatory. So, what would happen if your farm lost an owner or key employee? How would the operation get through the first thirty days?
It's emotionally hard on both families and employees. They are all grieving. Some may be blaming themselves. They might have been a part of the accident itself or the series of events leading to the accident.
This isn't a time for finger-pointing. Yet coming together to talk through what everyone is going through is important. Your employees and ownership group may need to get their emotions off their chest and just talk about what they are going through. In some cases, it makes sense to bring in a counselor to visit either one-on-one or with the group as a whole.
One thing that surprises most farms is that OSHA will want a report of the accident and death within eight hours. Yes, there will be an audit, and there could be a correction plan. But, OSHA should find out from the farm reporting it, rather than some other way. If this is the first event, OSHA will likely be fairly easy to work with.
What about the death of an owner? From a business perspective, what needs to be done?
An owner or key manager's death is more complicated. Things that everyone takes for granted become large obstacles. On many farms, the owners each have their own area of responsibility, which is fine as long as someone else knows how to fulfill those duties.
Here is a real-life example with enough vagueness to protect the farm's privacy. A farm started from scratch and became a successful genetics company that bought and sold genetics worldwide. Unfortunately, when the owner died, no one knew where the customer contact list was, the status of the deals, or the agreements with major suppliers. This took months to sort out, and business was lost. At the very least, it was an awkward discussion with clients when they finally connected, wondering about the status of their genetics purchase.
In today's era of mobile devices, can someone access the other owner's passcode to get into the phone if necessary? What about their email and computer access? Are others on the management team aware of the projects and deals the owners are working on? Is there access to a daily planner, notebook, or file system that holds this information? Who can be trusted to sit down at the deceased office desk and sort through things?
A sudden death is messy and hard on everyone. But some simple planning goes a long way. Probably the best all-encompassing solution is monthly and quarterly owner/manager meetings where everyone gives an update. Not only will the business run smoothly, but everyone will be keyed into what's on everyone's schedule. Another good practice is taking notes of meetings and storing them electronically where other trusted owners can access them. Too often, we carry too much around between our ears.
Finally, create a checklist to use if death does occur and update it annually. It should cover the daily operations in the first thirty days. Settling the estate is also important, but not in the first thirty days. It’s a topic we’ll explore another time.