Each one of us has been involved in some type of accident. Maybe your foot slipped and sent you tumbling off your ladder, or perhaps you struck the car behind you when backing out of a parking spot. Whether your incident ended up as a near-miss, a minor injury, or even caused a visit to the emergency room, there’s no denying that potential accidents are all around us.
As frequently as they happen, how often do we take the time to retrace the events that led up to an accident? Do we try to learn from the close calls? Chances are the more minor an accident is, the less we think about it. Nevertheless, performing an accident investigation is a major responsibility for managers at all levels of seniority because it is the key to long-term prevention and safety in your organization. Although an effective accident prevention plan includes several core elements, an accident investigation is one of the most critical things you can do to create a safer work environment for the long term.
Be aware of your risks
Accidents can happen anytime and anywhere. Consider for a moment the high-risk environments you may encounter daily:
- Roadways are prime areas for vehicle collisions and breakdowns
- Kitchens and cafeterias are fast-paced work environments where slips, trips, and falls can easily occur, while hot equipment can also cause serious burns
- Science labs and classrooms often contain hazardous chemicals that can cause burns, allergic reactions, or spread diseases
Virtually any place poses some level of risk for an accident—even an office environment can easily lead to painful muscle injuries. That’s why it’s important to have standard operating procedures, guidelines, and training to recognize and minimize hazards and risks to protect your assets.
At the same time, not every risky situation may result in an accident. Your organization might also experience incidents that do not cause damage to people or property. These should still be investigated the same way as accidents since they still offer valuable learning opportunities that can contribute to a safer workplace.
Benefits of an accident investigation
By definition, an accident is an unplanned, undesired event that results in harm or damage to property. One improper decision can start a domino effect of decisions that create hazardous circumstances.
- Understanding the events that led up to an accident can help to determine the cause. Each accident should be treated as a learning opportunity.
- Once the cause of the accident is determined, corrective actions can be taken to prevent the same or similar losses from occurring again.
- Discovering patterns in accidents may help determine if procedures need to be altered to keep people and property safe.
- Sharing information and discoveries helps to prevent future accidents and can reduce risks for others.
Accidents represent a failure. That failure could have risen out of human error, environmental conditions, a misuse of machinery, or equipment breakdown. A superficial accident investigation may lead to a quick remedy, but it is important to bring to light the deeper root cause. A thorough investigation may reveal problematic policies, insufficient training, or a flaw in processes and procedures.
An investigation is meant to determine the root cause of an accident and prevent reoccurrence; it is not about assigning blame. If people feel they are being attacked during an accident investigation, it may lead to false accident recounts, delayed accident reports, and perhaps even cover-ups. If this happens, the opportunity to learn from the accident will be lost.
Knowing how an accident happened is not enough; it is important to answer why an accident happened and recognize the different levels at which it could have been prevented. From there, work can begin to control or eliminate the hazard and reduce the potential for future losses.
What should an investigation involve?
Whether you have an accident or an incident on your hands, you should always conduct an organized investigation following these four steps:
1. Gather information
You’ve just received a report that an employee has slipped and fallen at your school’s kitchen, injuring their back. Your immediate response should be to gather as much information about the accident as possible. A few ways to gather data include interviewing the employee and any witnesses, reviewing any video footage, and looking over your training and maintenance records. You can contact your risk solutions consultant to receive sample investigation forms, questions, and witness statement forms to help you collect info.
2. Identify the cause
Review all the information you’ve assembled to identify a definite root cause of the accident. What made the employee slip and fall? You should consider overarching factors such as:
- Was the work environment safe? Were there puddles on the floor that could have made the employee lose their footing?
- Was the employee using the proper equipment or clothing to maximize safety? For example, were they wearing safe work shoes with sufficient tread to prevent slipping?
- Was the employee properly trained or engaging in unsafe behaviors? Was the employee running through the cafeteria or not paying attention to the floor?
Asking yourself such guiding questions should help lead you and your team to the origins of your accident.
3. Examine your data
Your accident data can tell a story. Analyzing the facts of your situation might reveal that an accident had underlying causes beyond its immediate roots. You may discover that your employee slipped and fell not only because there was a puddle on the floor, but because they were insufficiently trained in situational awareness.
4. Respond accordingly
Now that you’ve gathered and analyzed all your data, you should use it to develop corrective actions to help you prevent it from repeating. Your response will vary depending on what you discovered in your investigation. If you found that the employee slipped because the kitchen floors hadn’t been cleaned consistently, then you might modify your work orders to ensure that the floors stay dry. Meanwhile, if the injury occurred due to a misstep on the employee’s part, you might want to invest in new training procedures. Don’t forget to file workers’ compensation or property claims to cover medical expenses and repairs as necessary.
Lack of time, knowledge, and desire are all roadblocks to completing a good accident investigation. Combat these issues by dedicating the time and training it takes to learn how to properly investigate a loss and identify the cause. Create a safety culture that others can trust and that encourages compliance.
Investigate effectively with the Fund
Accidents can be inconvenient and costly; taking a proactive approach with accident investigations will help mitigate damages and prevent future losses. Sufficient training is essential for performing an effective investigation. The TASB Risk Management Fund can provide education and expertise tailored to your organization so you’ll be ready for investigating on-the-job injuries, preventing accidents, and prioritizing workplace safety. For more information on training, reach out to your risk solutions consultant.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in March 2012 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.