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Eight keys to a successful post incident investigation

An employers’ handling of a workplace injury affects not only the injured employee, but also co-workers and the company as a whole. It can forge a commitment to teamwork, safe work practices and confidence in the employer or it can result in distrust, rumors and half-truths, and low morale. The incident investigation conveys a strong message to the injured employee and the workforce. A lax investigation suggests the incident is not important, a low priority for the employer, reflecting a disinterest in the workforce. On the other hand, an aggressive investigation focusing on who is to “blame” for the incident creates discomfort and fear. From beginning to end the process should be fair, professional, thorough and non-intimidating. Here are eight keys that will help make the investigation successful:

  1. Define the purpose of the investigation
    In and of itself the word investigation triggers defensive feelings. It’s important that the injured employee and the witnesses be put at ease. The purpose of the investigation is to determine the cause or causes of the incident, identify unsafe conditions, acts or procedures that contributed to the incident and to recommend corrective actions. Clearly communicate that it is not to assign blame and that the priority is the injured worker and maintaining a safe work environment.

  2. Act quickly. Have an established system in place for all incident investigations
    Ideally, supervisors should carry on the investigation, as they are most knowledgeable about the type of work involved. Supervisors need to be fair, objective and impartial. If an adversarial relationship exists between the supervisor and employee, the chances of a successful investigation and return to work are slim.
  3. An accident investigation report form should be completed individually with the injured employee and all witnesses. This should be completed within 24 hours after the incident, when memories are fresh and witnesses’ opinions have not had a chance to be influenced by others. A safety coordinator should ensure that all accident investigation report forms are filled out completely and that the recommendations are being addressed.

    Sample of report forms.

  4. Immediately address the incident scene
    Analyze the situation and implement temporary control measures to prevent any further injuries to employees. Review the equipment, operations and processes to gain a further understanding. When appropriate take photographs, make drawings or take measurements.

  5. Reach out to the injured employee
    Suffering a workplace injury is a traumatic experience. In addition to the pain and discomfort caused by the injury, an injured employee often does not know what to do and becomes frightened. It’s important that the employer communicate that they really do care, want the employee to receive the proper medical treatment and be enrolled in a Return-To-Work program as soon as medically possible, with the ultimate goal to get the employee back on the job. Proper medical attention, as well as the employers’ empathy, should be provided before the incident investigation begins.

  6. Interview procedures
    The injured employee, all witnesses and relevant employees should be interviewed as soon as possible, ideally within 24 hours of the accident. Interviews should be conducted with anyone who can give relevant information, such as a manager or trainer, even if they were not present at the time of the incident. Interview each person individually and separately. Reassure each person of the investigation’s main purpose, put them at ease and do not conduct the interview as if in a courtroom.
  7. With witnesses, an effective approach can be to ask them to relate their account of the incident, listen intently, but do not ask questions or take notes. This gives the witnesses time to collect their thoughts. Then have them relate the story again while taking notes and asking questions, avoiding any questions that lead the witness. Try to achieve a chronological accounting – what happened first, next, etc. Stay focused on facts, not opinion.

    Review your notes with the witness to be sure they agree that you have recorded it accurately. Encourage the witness to contact you if they think of something else. Remind interviewees that all information is confidential.

  8. Identify root causes
    In many cases, there is one obvious cause for the injury, but it is a mistake to stop there. For example, an employee slips on grease on the floor. The obvious cause is the grease on the floor. Drilling down further with a series of ‘why’ questions will help identify how the grease got there, why it was not cleaned up, etc. The ‘5 Whys’ is a technique used in the Analysis phase of the Six Sigma DMAIC methodology. Although this technique is called ‘5 Whys,’ you may find that you will need to ask the question fewer or more times than five before you find the issue related to a problem.

  9. Evaluate the evidence
    Objectivity is the most important factor in evaluating the evidence. Investigate causal conditions and unsafe acts; make conclusions based on existing facts. Be sure to consider all contributing factors and determine what evidence is direct, circumstantial or hearsay.

  10. Report writing
    A factual, concise, clearly written report is critical to protecting the employer and providing direction for corrective actions. Include a summary of the events leading up to and including the incident. Be specific with dates, time, people, conditions, equipment, acts, etc. Keep the events in chronological order. Provide recommendations for corrective actions and indicate the need for additional or remedial safety training.