Accident Investigations

Millions of accidents and incidents occur throughout the United States every year. The inability of people, equipment, supplies, or surroundings to behave or react as expected causes most of the accidents and incidents. Accident and incident investigations determine how and why each incident occurs. By using the information gained through an accident and incident investigation, a similar or perhaps more disastrous accident may be prevented. Accident and incident investigations should be conducted with prevention in mind. The mission is one of fact finding. Investigations are not to find fault.

An accident, by definition, is any unplanned event that results in personal injury or in property damage. When the personal injury requires little or no treatment, or is minor, it is often called a first-aid case. If it results in a fatality or in a permanent total, permanent partial, or temporary total (lost-time) disability, it is serious. Likewise, if property damage results, the event may be minor or serious. All accidents/incidents should be investigated regardless of the extent of injury or damage.

Accidents are part of a broad group of events that adversely affect the completion of a task. Accidents fall under the category of an incident. With this said, the most commonly used term for accidents and incidents is accident, which is used to refer to both accidents and incidents, since the basic precepts are applicable to both.

An important element of a safety and health program is accident investigation. Although it may seem to be too little too late, accident investigations serve to correct the problems that contribute to an accident and will reveal accident causes that might otherwise remain uncorrected.

The reasons why accident investigations are an important element within a company's safety and health initiative are as follows:

  • • To determine cause and effect
  • • To systematically collect and gather information on the incident
  • • To determine the facts, not the faults
  • • To provide data for comparing and contrasting
  • • To take short- and long-term prevention actions
  • • To provide an overview of success and failure of safety and health
  • • To help others in solving and preventing accidents/incidents in their operations
  • • To standardize the investigational process
  • • To be an integral part of the occupational safety and health (OSH) initiative

The main purpose of conducting an accident investigation is to prevent a recurrence of the same or a similar event. It is important to investigate all accidents regardless of the extent of injury or damage. The kinds of accidents that should be investigated and reported are as follows:

  • • Disabling injury accidents
  • • Nondisabling injury accidents that require medical treatment
  • • Circumstances that have contributed to acute or chronic occupational illness
  • • Noninjury, property damage accidents that exceed a normally expected operating cost
  • • Near accidents (sometimes called near miss) with a potential for serious injury or property damage

In spite of their complexity, most accidents are preventable by eliminating one or more causes. Accident investigations determine not only what happened but also how and why. The information gained from these investigations can prevent recurrence of similar or perhaps more disastrous accidents. Accident investigators are interested in each event as well as in the sequence of events that led to an accident. The accident type is also important to the investigator. The recurrence of accidents of a particular type or those with common causes shows areas needing special accident prevention emphasis.

It is important to have some mechanism in place to investigate accidents and incidents in order to determine the basis of cause-and-effect relationships. You may determine these types of relationships only when you actively investigate all accidents and incidents that result in injuries, illnesses, or damage to property, equipment, and machinery.

Accident investigation becomes more effective when all levels of management, particularly top management, take a personal interest in controlling accidents. Management adds a contribution when it actively supports accident investigations. It is normally the responsibility of line supervisors to investigate all accidents; in cases where there is serious injury or equipment damage, other personnel such as department managers and an investigation team might become involved as well.

Once types of accidents or incidents have been determined, then prevention and intervention activities can be undertaken to assure that those types do not reoccur. Even if the company is not experiencing large numbers of accidents and incidents, it still needs to implement activities that actively search for, identify, and correct the risk from hazards on jobsites. Reasons to investigate accidents and incidents include the following:

  • • To know and understand what happened
  • • To gather information and data for present and future use
  • • To determine cause and effect
  • • To provide answers for the effectiveness of intervention and prevention approaches
  • • To document the circumstances for legal and workers' compensation issues
  • • To become a vital component of the safety and health program.

If the company has only a few accidents and incidents, it might want to move down one step to examine near misses and first aid-related cases. It is only a matter of luck or timing that separates the near miss or first-aid event from being a serious, recordable, or reportable event. The truth is that the company probably has been lucky by seconds or inches. (A second later and a tool would have hit someone, or an inch more and it would have cut off a finger.) Truly, it pays dividends to take time to investigate accidents and incidents occurring in the workplace.

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