Unfortunately, workplace accidents are inevitable and occur across the country on a variety of scales on a daily basis. Most accidents are minor, with some even going unreported, but for many there are followup investigations that can potentially drag on for months or even years, much to the chagrin of a business owner trying to move past an unfortunate incident. Interestingly enough, OSHA itself does not have a specific procedure in place for accident investigation, and often does not actually conduct the investigations themselves. That said, they do have guidelines to help shape the investigatory procedures of labor agencies with local jurisdiction where an incident occurs, and they actively help update and approve these organizations’ procedures. While OSHA may not be hands-on personally with every investigation, they do collect the results and findings of cases, create new guidelines and standards, and can administer punishment or help bring suit against a company found negligent. Most cases never go so far, but it is important to know how investigations unfold and how you can best handle them as a business owner or safety manager.
Criteria and Purpose of an Investigation
Before worrying about how to cooperate with or respond best to an investigation, it’s important to know what kinds of incidents will be investigated in the first place (and to what extent). OSHA guidelines state that all accidents should be investigated, but that the extent of any investigation should be in line with the severity of the incident. For example, if an incident doesn’t result in major injury, fatality, or property damage, it is likely safe to assume a relatively low profile and quick investigation.
In the end, OSHA’s primary goal in investigating any accident is to improve safety through adapting their policies and guidelines and shoring up any safety risks that may have not been fully addressed previously. While OSHA, and its approved local agencies, will state that a goal of investigating is not to assess blame, it is possible that findings could be used punitively if it is found that current safety rules and laws were not followed by a company. In these cases, businesses can either be fined directly by OSHA/the Department of Labor, or evidence gathered in an accident investigation can be made available to an employee wishing to pursue legal action against their employer as a result of negligence.
OSHA Investigation Procedures – What to Expect
While not all investigations are the same when conducted by independent agencies, there are some similarities in procedure you can expect. Let’s take a look at what an investigator will be doing during their visit(s) to your company.
First of all, an organization will determine the scope of the investigation based on past evidence:
Was this a one-time occurrence? Has a similar incident happened in the industry before? In the same company?
Next, the investigator, or team of investigators, will be given a brief on the incident before visiting the site of its occurrence. The main purpose of this visit is to get accurate and updated information that will help accident investigators determine what happened. They will collect physical evidence and write observations about the incident and its entire context in order to get a full picture of what happened – this may include photographs and drawings. As part of information collection, investigators will also conduct interviews with anyone who was present at the time of the incident, as well as those involved just before and just after it occurred. Interviews are one of the most important pieces of evidence in any investigation and investigators will want to conduct them as early on as possible. Tape recorders may be used to ensure accuracy, though depending on local/state law, workers may decline to have their statements recorded in this way.
Next, investigators are going to be trying to work out what went wrong or was abnormal before and during the incident which caused it to occur. Investigators will generally try to look for causation in several layers, to determine underlying factors as well as direct ones. According to KEMI.com’s OSHA Accident Investigation” Guidelines document:
Accidents are usually complex. An accident may have 10 or more events that can be causes. A detailed analysis of an accident will normally reveal three cause levels: basic, indirect, and direct. At the lowest level, an accident results only when a person or object receives an amount of energy or hazardous material that cannot be absorbed safely. This energy or hazardous material is the DIRECT CAUSE of the accident. The direct cause is usually the result of one or more unsafe acts or unsafe conditions, or both. Unsafe acts and conditions are the indirect causes or symptoms. In turn, indirect causes are usually traceable to poor management policies and decisions, or to personal or environmental factors. These are the basic causes.
-KEMI.com – OSHA Accident Investigation
Once the most-likely causation and sequence of events has been determined, findings are submitted to the appropriate authorities including the heads of the investigating body and parties within OSHA and the Department of Labor.
From here, action taken (or not taken) can vary greatly. In some cases, it will be determined that worker negligence – not using proper provided PPE, ignoring safety rules, etc. – is to blame. In others, there may have been highly unlikely and unfortunate circumstances leading up to the incident in the absence of any wrongdoing, resulting in no or very little action taken (though every effort will be made to ensure prevention of similar problems in the future). In some cases, an employer may be determined to be at fault, in which a number of actions, including possible litigation and fining, could take place.
Do’s and Don’t’s
While the initial outcome of any accident investigation is, in most cases, out of your hands, there are certainly some actions you can take in order to show diligence, responsibility, and compliance with investigators. Let’s round things off with a few things you should know about your own role in any investigation proceedings.
- Conduct your own investigation. Because you or one of your managers will have been on the scene either during or moments after an incident occurs, you have a chance to get the first-hand accounts of employees. Conduct interviews with your workers to get an idea of what went on, and, if possible, get them to sign their statements/accounts of what happened. In addition, make notes about the state of the scene of the accident, along with any theories you develop for what happened and evidence you have or observed to backup your conclusions. Signed statements and validated data from the time of the incident can help you later on if you feel an investigation’s findings are unfair or inaccurate, especially if you find yourself in court or facing fines (however unlikely).
- DO NOT, under any circumstances, remove or tamper with evidence during your own information gathering.
- Comply and cooperate. Keep copies of your findings, interviews, and materials, but also offer them up to investigators to aid in their process. Comply fully with any additional requests for information or access to people or systems within your business. While OSHA may not have a lot of wiggle room when assessing punishment, the last thing you want is an investigator feeling vindictive (however unprofessional, it can happen).
- Keep calm and know your rights. If you feel things tilting out of your favor, consult legal counsel to help you understand your options and how you should conduct yourself from there on out. While informational articles like these are a great place to start, they should never be construed or substituted for legal advice.
To help prevent accidents from occurring its important to have proper safety signs in place. Floor signs or wall signs (which you can find here) are great communication tools that will help warn your employees of potential hazards. In addition to safety signs, employers must provide proper PPE to all employees and they must be trained where to find proper PPE. Safety signs can help communicate where proper PPE is required (like this PPE Floor Sign) or even located.
- How to Handle Incident Investigation
- Stop the Accident before You’re Part of the Accident
- Can OSHA Re-Open Closed Investigations?
- OSHA’s Priority Areas in Workplace Safety
- Whistleblower Complaints, You, and OSHA
- The Foundational Layers to a Proper Near Miss Safety System
- Near Miss Reporting – A Step by Step Guide for Improved Reporting
- Go for the Gold: Create an Accident-Free Work Environment