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Accident Investigation: The Basics

One of the most effective tools in reducing workplace injuries and illnesses is an accident investigation. The investigation process gives insight on the root causes of accidents and the steps needed to prevent them in the future. Even minor accidents and near misses should be investigated as the severity of an accident is often just a matter of timing.

Develop an Accident Investigation Program

When you establish a standard program, you make the investigation process more efficient and reliable. Take these three steps when developing your program:

  • Select an accident investigation team. A team approach brings different perspectives and ideas to the process. The immediate supervisor of the person(s) involved in the accident should always be a member of the team. They are often familiar with the circumstances surrounding the accident and may be able to suggest corrective actions. Other members may include the safety director, human resource manager, operations manager, administrator, maintenance and technical staff, and safety committee members.
  • Develop an accident investigation form. You can use any format if it answers two important questions: what caused the accident and what can be done to prevent it from happening again.
  • Create an accident investigation kit. The kit should include items such as a camera, barricade tape, flashlight, tape measure and work gloves.

Train the Investigation Team

Handing an accident investigation form to a supervisor and asking them to complete it without any training is likely not going to prevent future accidents. All members of the investigation team should be trained on the factors that cause accidents. The training should help the team find the root cause(s) of accidents and develop corrective action(s).

Investigators should have the mindset that all accidents are preventable. The investigation should not be used to place blame on any employee, even if the employee's unsafe act contributed to the accident. Investigation training should cover the following types of root causes:

  • Physical hazards or unsafe conditions—Review physical and environmental factors, such as water on the floor from a leaky roof, defective ladders or unguarded equipment.
  • Human behaviors or unsafe acts—Examine behaviors or actions such as removing safety guards on equipment, not wearing the required protective gear or horseplay.
  • Management system failures—Discuss how failure of management systems can contribute to accidents. This includes lack of employee training, inconsistent enforcement of safety rules and failure to provide safety equipment.

Perform an Accident Investigation

A quick response by the accident investigation team is crucial in getting evidence and witness accounts. Armed with all the facts, the investigation team can better understand the root cause(s) of the accident and identify possible corrective action(s). An investigation should include the following steps:

  • Record the name of the injured employee, their department and supervisor
  • Draw a diagram of the scene. Include the location of employees, witnesses, equipment and any other important information
  • Take several photos of the scene
  • Record all observations made at the scene, including environmental conditions, date and time of the accident, machine or equipment involved, task being performed and specific location(s) in the facility
  • Obtain witness accounts. Interview only one witness at a time and ask open-ended questions. Emphasize prevention and never place blame on any employee or witness

Find Corrective Actions

The goal of any accident investigation is timely corrective action(s), based upon the Hierarchy of Hazard Control. Avoid jumping to the conclusion that the accident was caused by an employee's unsafe acts. For example, an employee slips on a wet floor near the building entrance on a snowy day. The employee knows that snow gets tracked inside and may cause puddles. Was the accident caused by the employee walking through a slippery area? Is recommending that the employee "pay better attention to their surroundings" likely to prevent a similar accident in the future?

Most accident investigators would agree that this accident was not caused by the employee's inattention to safety. Instead, corrective action(s) may include:

  • Extra mats by entrances during winter weather
  • Replacing or drying damp mats
  • Training all employees to report water puddles as soon as they are noticed
  • Placing warning signs in any wet areas

Improve the Safety Program

An accident investigation program can also help you identify trends. For example, if "lack of training" repeatedly shows up as a contributing factor, take a serious look at your employee orientation program and refresher training for current employees.

If similar accidents continue to occur, this indicates your corrective action(s) were not effective and changes are needed. It might also signify the need for further training for the accident investigation team.

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