More than half of the 4,000 major injuries reported by the industry last year were easily preventable. Here’s how to carry out an effective investigation

More than 4,000 major injuries caused by accidents were reported to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) by the construction industry in 2006/2007. Over half are considered by the HSE to have been “easily preventable”. If the HSE is correct, then it is clear: avoiding accidents saves employees from injury. Effective accident investigation is proven to reduce accident and incident rates and has a number of other benefits beyond keeping employees safe. These are:

  • Ensuring legal compliance in relation to recording, reporting and investigation
  • Contemporaneously recording facts and capturing evidence that might assist in later legal proceedings and so serving to achieve significant financial savings in relation to criminal penalties and civil liability
  • Allowing for assessment of risk trends, priorities, etc.
  • Evidence obtained as part of an accident investigation should include:
  • Statutory and company documents and forms (ie RIDDOR, accident report forms)
  • Witness statements, including an account from the injured party
  • Documents relevant to the work process (i.e. risk assessments, method statements, statutory certification)
  • Physical and live evidence (i.e. equipment, samples, measurements, video, photos and examination results)
  • Expert opinion.

Evidence gathering is usually straightforward and should begin as soon after the event as possible. The objective is to establish and tackle the underlying cause(s) to prevent recurrence. Unfortunately, companies often restrict their enquiries to resolving the immediate causes that are usually easy to identify (unsafe act or condition) and take the investigation no further. Clearly this is inadequate.

An accident investigation should be conducted so as to allow an organisation to:

  • Review all procedures, risk assessments and other matters (such as training provision, communication and management) with a view to determining whether action needs to be taken to prevent a re-occurrence
  • List all witnesses and present all relevant evidence to legal advisers if later required
  • Take any action necessary to mitigate and prevent recurrence
  • Develop a system to categorise causes so subsequent evaluations of accident types are easier.

Any investigation should be signed off or approved by a person qualified and authorised to reach conclusions and effect revisions to processes.

Unfortunately firms often restrict their enquiries to
resolving the immediate causes that are usually easy to identify

Difficulties sometimes arise when companies gather evidence as part of their legal obligation to report and investigate cause on the one hand and, simultaneously, in contemplation of legal proceedings on the other. Ideally, two files should be opened. Evidence of fact (for example, photographs, measurements, statements of fact from witnesses) and objective assessments of fault (such as a review of a risk assessment leading to a recommendation of further risk alleviation measures) should be placed on each file. There should be no hiding negative findings.

Other statements such as managers’ comments, opinions, subjective recommendations for correction and so on, are likely to be privileged and should only be placed on the file created in contemplation of legal proceedings. Particular difficulties arise where internal documents look to record evidence of both types within the same document. Companies should look to identify such documents and arrange for them to be redrafted with a view to avoiding privilege arguments at some later point.

To conclude, make sure your investigation template captures all the necessary information that will allow your investigator to make an informed decision as to what has gone wrong, why it happened and how recurrence is to be prevented. Communicate your findings, remembering to disseminate to those within your organisation who may be affected by a similar occurrence.