How to Handle Incident Investigation

We all do our best to prevent incidents, especially those that result in major injuries, from occurring in the work place. Sometimes, however, things just go wrong. In these situations, business owners can find themselves quickly overwhelmed in a whirlwind of investigation procedures, quickly buried over their heads. Keeping a cool state of mind in these cases is easier said than done, especially if it is the first time you’ve had to deal with a major incident. To make it easier, let’s go through step by step how you can keep a level head and come out on top when handling an on the job incident investigation.

First Response – Getting Acquainted With the Situation

The time right after an incident occurs is crucial for a number of reasons. First of all, it is when the accident is most fresh in people’s minds and when you are most likely to get an accurate recounting of what exactly went on. Secondly, this is your chance to go straight to the source without any interference. Once OSHA investigators, outside consultants, medical experts, and possibly even lawyers get involved, it’s going to be harder to have unfiltered access to affected employees without tip toeing around red tape.

Getting overall statements from as many involved sources as possible is the priority at this point. Facts often seem subjective or are bent when talking to workers involved in or who observed an accident, and so it’s more important that you simply get an idea of what happened from as many people as possible than that you actually get exact facts or details from each of them. That said, any details they do provide you want to be able to use in any procedures that might follow. For this reason, make sure that employees sign their statements; it is best if they write the statement in their own words but you may also have them simply look over and endorse your own interview notes.

Additional Tips:

− You want to be quick when making contact with people so that workers don’t have a lot of time to talk amongst each other.

− Workers may often withhold information if they fear repercussions for themselves or others. While you cannot, in good faith, guarantee to them that no such actions will be taken, emphasize that right now you are only trying to gather information and find out what happened, and no one is being punished or blamed. Your main purpose in all of this investigative work is to make your work place safer and help ensure that a similar incident doesn’t happen again; make sure they know this.

− Don’t get accusatory. As much as you need to put your employees at ease, you also need to monitor your own body language and mannerisms to make sure you reflect the attitude you want to convey.

CSI Time

Not to make light of the situation, but after you have completed your initial interviews, you need to do some investigating of physical evidence. It is a good idea to take photographs of everything you find or have questions about before an OSHA investigator arrives in case anything gets moved around, cleaned up, or taken away. Look on equipment, walls, and materials for damage that might be related to the incident. For example, if a forklift crashed, you might look around for marks that indicate where the vehicle landed or slid, what it hit, and what other subsequent hazards might have been at play for the driver because of these factors. Look at where things were on the ground, if there were spills that facilitated the accident, etc. Do not remove or tamper with any evidence yourself, just document it.

To the Record Books

The next step in your investigation should be to look back over your own records and see if anything sticks out such as…

− Times in the past where a similar incident or an incident in the same location occurred. This can help you recognize trends and correct them.

− Service records that might show a machine overdue for an inspection, an operator’s notes about something malfunctioning, or recommendations to purchase new equipment.

Determining Causes

Causes for major incidents are rarely just one layer deep. One of the advantages of being thorough in your own investigation is that you often uncover underlying causes that, if not remedied, could continue to create problems. For example, let’s say an employee tracked a slick material in on his or her shoes and another employee later slipped and fell. The immediate cause might be to modify worker behavior, like making sure that everyone wipes their feet before coming into the area. However, someone looking for root causes might determine that the other work area shouldn’t be so dirty in the first place, or that a work station involving slippery materials shouldn’t be so close to a highly-trafficked walking or carrying lane and should be clearly marked using visual safety cues such as floor tape.


Shortly after the incident report is filed, an OSHA representative will complete a thorough investigation to determine any fines or penalties that should be assessed. This is often for the business itself, but blame and penalties can be leveled at individuals given the circumstances. Usually, however, personal assessments are settled in lawsuits filed by the affected party members/employees, where OSHA may be called upon to testify or provide evidence.

When an investigation starts, you’ll want to decide if you will require OSHA to get a warrant for the investigation before entering your place of work. While it may seem that requesting a warrant could arouse suspicion or cause investigators to assume blame, OSHA officials don’t have very much range in the punishments they can assign based on findings, so you’re unlikely to be additionally punished for doing so. Plus, there are a few reasons you may want to consider it.

One of these is that you can give yourself some breathing room; Even in the best and most ethical of operations, record keeping can be lax when incidents rarely occur, so much so that when something does happen you’re left scrambling. In this situation, the extra time it takes for OSHA to obtain a warrant can allow you to bring your records up to date.

Similarly, if you have other hazards or operational components that need to be brought up to code, this can be your chance to do so to help you avoid fines for them when an investigator comes along. Take the incident as a reminder that you should have had these things done already, and chalk it up to experience.

In the End

When the investigator does come knocking, however, make every effort to be cooperative and accommodating. The OSHA is there to keep people safe, not to punish you. Be open and honest with them and be sure to provide the investigator with your own notes, photographs, and witness statements from the incident (but also keep copies, just in case!). You will undoubtedly be interviewed as part of the process, this is your chance to offer your version of events or what you think happened.

In the event that you are fined, do not complain directly to the investigator. If you agree you are at least partially to blame, move forward and make every effort to improve in the future. If you feel your punishment is unfair, follow the proper procedures to appeal it.


Tony, Good Tips!

I would also recommend that all near misses get the same treatment as actual incidents. Getting to the root cause of near misses will help to prevent future incidents and provide the organization with the corrective actions necessary to avoid accidents. One way to help get to the root cause in any situation is to use the Lean technique from Toyota called the 5 whys, which has one ask ‘why’ until they get to the root cause.

A good investigation takes a team dedicated to the safety culture they represent, but is absolutely necessary for the good of the organization. Taking each and every incident and near miss is crucial to the well-being of the current, and future employees.

-Kyle Holland, fellow blogger at Creative Safety Supply

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