The Who, What, Where, When and How of a Proper Accident Investigation

Joe O’Connor

September 2007

Accident investigations are a cornerstone in the foundation of many effective safety programs. They identify why an accident happened and recommend actions that will prevent future accidents from occurring. The information gathered during investigations assists management in meeting legal reporting requirements and filing insurance claims. But the very documents generated to create a safer workplace can be used against you in a court of law. Cases involving third parties and serious or willful misconduct require special handling. It is recommended that you have an attorney review all accident polices as well as the forms and procedures to be used. You should also seek legal advice on the filing and maintenance of all accident-related records and reports.

The Incident Report: Who, What, Where and When
The two basic tools used in the accident investigation process are the Incident Report and Accident Analysis. The Incident Report is the initial report usually filed by supervisors to inform management that an accident has occurred. It should be filed every time there is an accident in the workplace. The Incident Report should be designed to collect objective facts. This report will succinctly identify who, what, where and when. It will provide brief answers to the questions contained in the OSHA Form 301 (Injury and Illness Incident Report). It may also also include basic objective information required by your insurance provider.

Management must carefully develop the form to be used in the Incident Report. They should also develop a policy that clearly identifies when an incident report is required, who is required to complete the reports and how quickly they are to be filed. Most effective policies require immediate notification if an accident involves death, hospitalization, medical treatment or a third party.

Written reports are usually required to be filed within 24 hours. It is likely that Incident Reports will be subpoenaed during litigation and should be treated as such.

Training must be provided to workers who are required to submit the reports. The training should address all policies and procedures you expect them follow. Keep in mind that supervisors are usually the first representatives of management at the scene of an accident. Their decisions and actions can cost you or save you thousands of dollars. Also remember that in most cases local news crews can arrive at the scene of accidents before emergency services. All managers, supervisors and workers should receive training and be advised on giving statements and unsolicited comments. Everyone should understand the level of cooperation they are required to provide OSHA, criminal investigators and private agencies. They should know what to say as well as what not to say. This does not happen by chance. You must take the time to develop polices and procedures and ensure that workers are effectively trained.

The Accident Analysis: Why and How
The objective of the Accident Analysis is to identify why and how the accident occurred. The process begins by reviewing the initial Incident Report. The report provides enough information to identify the problem and scope of the analysis. As soon a possible, the accident analysis team should attempt to determine the initial sequence of events. This may require an inspection of the accident scene and/or equipment.

Additional data will then be collected and confirmed. This may include pictures, statements, training histories and worker qualifications. Once the data have been collected and confirmed, the team will determine what failed or caused the accident. Some instruments typically used in this process are the Job Safety Analysis, Change Analysis, Barrier Analysis and System Failure Analysis. A search of the Internet will provide procedures, flowcharts and forms that can be used; a quick Google search of "Job Safety Analysis” brings up 120,000 results. You can identify the root cause(s) of the accident by using these comprehensive analytical tools. A list of corrective actions can be developed and a report submitted to management. The report should also identify the strengths of your existing program. Once the final report has been approved by management, an agenda should be established, changes tracked and progress reported.

Management must not only determine the procedures for conducting the accident analysis; management also must develop a policy that identifies when to conduct an analysis. At one time, accident analyses were routinely performed for cases involving a fatality, hospitalization or a lost day; today’s employers are cautioned against this policy. You should not routinely do an accident analysis if you suspect litigation. Litigation will most likely result in cases involving extreme severity, willful misconduct and third parties. In these cases you should seek immediate legal advice. Your attorney may recommend private investigation services and instruct you how to proceed.

Management also must determine who will conduct the analysis and complete the report. These tasks require time and skill. Policies, procedures and forms will need to be developed. Training will also need to be provided to all accident analysis team members. Because of the sensitive nature and legal ramifications of the information, confidentiality is critical. In many organizations only trained managers are permitted to serve as analysis team members.

What Next?
All documentation resulting from the accident analysis should be identified as confidential in your policy. The documents should be filed in a separate location and kept away from Incident Reports and required OSHA reports. This may help to establish your claim of confidentiality and make the documents more difficult to subpoena. Your policies and procedures may also limit the time documents are kept on file. Some organizations destroy all analysis documents once an action list has been compiled or tasks completed. You have to ultimately determine the criteria for managing accident analysis. It is recommended that all decisions be based on sound legal advice. All policies, procedures and training outlines should be reviewed by your attorney.

The benefits of conducting effective accident analysis far exceed the pitfalls. Analyzing accidents is a critical component of occupational safety and health programs. They provide an effective means of examining and improving your existing program. However, management must also take action to ensure they are legally protected. Accident analysis should be a used tool for protecting workers and not weapon to be used against you in a court of law.

About the Author
Joe O’Connor is with Intec, Inc., Waverly, Pa. He can be reached at (800) 745.4818.