10 Critical Steps for Investigating and Reporting Accidents
In addition to reporting accidents to the relevant authorities, all accidents should be reported and properly investigated internally in order for corrective actions to be taken.
A "zero accident workplace" may be a noble goal, but it's simply not a realistic one. No matter the industry or how light the workload, incidents will happen despite all our best efforts to prevent them.
While a perfect safety record might be a touch too ambitious, that doesn't mean we can't strive to reduce incident rates as much as we possibly can. With the right steps, every workplace can reduce the frequency and severity of accidents.
Thoroughly investigating every accident is critical to achieving this goal. By gaining a better understanding of the factors that led to the accident, you will be able to put measures in place to prevent a similar event from occurring in the future.
In this article, we'll walk you through each step of conducting a thorough accident investigation so you can make the most of an unfortunate event and improve the safety of your organization.
First, however, let's take a moment to talk about the terminology we'll be using.
Accidents vs. Incidents
Some people will use "accident" and "incident" interchangeably. Others will have distinct definitions for each of them.
Those in the latter camp typically parse the difference as follows:
- An accident is an unplanned event that results in injury, illness, or damage to property
- An incident is an unplanned event that has the potential to cause harm
In other words, all unplanned events that put people at risk are incidents, while those that actually result in harm are accidents.
OSHA, meanwhile, cautions against using "accident" in certain situations. Their Incident Investigation page offers the following rationale for this:
In the past, the term “accident” was often used referring to an unplanned, unwanted event. To many, “accident” suggests an event that was random, and could not have been prevented. Since nearly all worksite fatalities, injuries and illnesses are preventable, OSHA suggests using the term “incident” investigation.
In this article, we'll use the two terms interchangeably. However, it's important to stress that in either case, the language is not meant to suggest that nothing could be done to prevent accidents or incidents. After all, accident investigations are useful precisely because these events are preventable, but can only be prevented if they are properly understood.
Likewise, all unplanned safety events warrant investigations, not only those that result in injuries or illness. Whether they are on-site injuries, accidents on remote worksites, or near misses, all should be subject to an investigation.
(Learn more in Near Misses: What They Are and Why You Should Report Them)
Why You Should Investigate Accidents
OSHA’s Safety and Health Program Management Guidelines state that the primary purpose of investigating an accident is to ensure that its causes, as well as methods for preventing its re-occurrence, are identified.
Workplace accidents should also be investigated to:
- Fulfill legal requirements
- Determine the costs incurred as a result of the accident
- Determine compliance with applicable safety regulations
- Process worker compensation claims
10 Steps to Follow During an Accident Investigation
1. Take Care of All Those Affected
First things first, before conducting an investigation or reporting an incident, it's important to tend to those who have been injured or otherwise affected by it.
If needed, administer first aid, bring them to the hospital, or call in first responders.
2.Take Immediate Action and Form an Investigation Team
Whenever an accident occurs, you should form an accident investigation team and take appropriate and immediate action to investigate and address the problem.
Members of the investigation team should include persons who are experienced in accident causation and investigative techniques, as well as persons who are fully knowledgeable of the work processes, procedures, and personnel involved in the accident.
Your accident investigation team can include:
- Immediate supervisors
- Employees with knowledge of the work
- Safety officers
- Health and safety committee members
- Union representatives, if applicable
- Employees with experience in investigations
- Outside experts
- Representatives from the local government
3. Report the Accident
The person directly involved in the accident (or their immediate supervisor) should then fill out an accident report.
Serious accidents (or incidents) should be reported immediately to the relevant manager in accordance with the company's emergency protocols.
4. Report to the Authorities
Accidents that are severe enough must be reported to the authorities in accordance to statutory laws and regulations.
The following accidents should always be reported to the authorities:
- Injuries requiring hospitalization
- Chemical exposure requiring immediate medical treatment
- Major spills, emissions, or any other event with serious environmental impact
While all incidents should be reported promptly, employers are required to notify OSHA within 8 hours of a work-related fatality, and within 24 hours of an incident resulting in hospitalization, amputation, or the loss of an eye.
5. Gather Information
Secure the scene of the incident as soon as possible. This will allow you to start gathering your initial data.
It's important to do this without delay because two things can change over time after an accident has occurred: material evidence and witnesses' memories of the event. Gathering this information as soon as possible will ensure that you are working with more accurate and useful data.
One of the biggest challenges that investigators face is being able to determine what information is relevant to understanding what happened, how it happened, and why it happened. It's a good idea to identify this type of information ahead of time so that you can have a plan or process in place once the investigation is underway.
6. Analyze the Facts
Determine the sequence of events that led up to the accident. Then, study each event to identify any hazardous conditions, unsafe behaviors, and actions that were not taken which could have contributed to the accident.
Look for system weaknesses as well, such as inadequate or missing safety programs, plans, policies, processes, and procedures.
Once you've developed and analyzed the sequence of events, determine the causes of the events by conducting a series of analyses:
- Injury analysis
- Event analysis
- Systems analysis
- Direct cause of injury
- Surface cause of the accident
- Root cause of the accident
- Three levels of cause analysis
7. Implement Solutions
Based on the information gathered, recommend improvements to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future. To ensure these recommendations are effective, follow through by implementing appropriate hazard control strategies.
Write a thorough report. The manner in which you present your findings will shape perceptions and subsequent corrective actions. The accident report form should include:
- Description of the accident
- Review and follow-up actions
- Supplementary attachments (photos, sketches, interview notes, and so on)
(Lear more about Using Rich Media to Enhance EHS Reporting)
8. Calculate the Costs
The cost (or potential cost) of an incident may be calculated as part of the investigation and included in the final report. This may include both direct costs and indirect costs.
In a perfect world, the goal of preventing injuries would be sufficient to convince every company leader to take decisive, proactive actions to maximize the safety of all employees. In reality, safety is balanced against other considerations, including the costs associated with new safety measures.
Calculating the costs of the incidents makes it easier for company leaders to choose safety. Implementing the right safety measures can be expensive, but the costs associated with future incidents are likely to be far more prohibitive.
9. Conduct a Root Cause Analysis
A root cause analysis is a methodical process used to evaluate and estimate the risks associated with a particular hazard. The purpose of conducting a root cause analysis is to identify the underlying problems within the system of work, as well as safety management systems.
10. Record the Details
Document all accident notification, reporting, investigation, and corrective actions. Keep these records for at least three years or for the period required by legislation in your jurisdiction.
There you have it: everything there is to know about the accident analysis process and the methods for reporting it.
Remember that the objective of the incident report is to uncover the causal factors that contributed to the incident. It does not not require you to assign blame, and doing so could in fact compromise the safety of your workplace.
Corrective action is the goal. If the accident investigation merely records the event but does not prevent future incidents, it has been a waste of time, effort, and resources. Instead of a fix, you're just left with another accident waiting to happen.
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