The Importance of Accident Investigations

Everybody who works in the construction industry must be aware of what an important issue health and safety in the workplace is.  We always seem to focus so determinedly on accident prevention which is understandable as accidents in the workplace can have such serious consequences.  There is the financial burden that will arise, the legal consequences and the humanitarian costs, all of which can have far reaching effects on both the injured party and the workplace and employer.  However, we seem to be so intent on preventing accidents that we often lose sight of what we can learn about failures in health and safety once an accident has occurred.

Once an accident has taken place an accident investigation is carried out in order to evaluate the incident so that future accidents can be prevented.  Accidents are usually identified because there has been an outcome, but we need to separate the incident from the outcome.  For example if a builder working on scaffolding drops a hammer which hits and injures somebody down below, then we think of the person hit by the hammer as the one who had the accident.  While this would lead to strategies that would prevent people from walking close to the base of the scaffolding, we need to be looking at preventing the worker from dropping the hammer in the first place.

The outcome of any incident can vary from slight damage, through serious injury or ill health all the way to fatality.  A “near miss” is the term used to describe an incident that did not lead to any significant outcome such as an injury or property damage.  These near misses should be seen as an ideal opportunity to highlight any inadequacies in hazard control systems in order to prevent future, serious accidents.

There are several tools and techniques that can be used during an incident/accident investigation to analyse the accident and identify the root cause.  The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommends a methodical approach with full employee participation.  The technique used should:

  • Allow investigators to establish the sequence of events and conditions that led to the accident – this could go back hours, days or even weeks.
  • Enable analysis and evaluation of all the significant causes – immediate, underlying and root causes.

This approach will enable whoever is investigating the accident to identify any risk control measures that were missing, not used or not adequate and compare the conditions and practices with what is required by legislation, codes of practice and guidance.  The investigator should then be unbiased and objective when recommending actions that should prevent a similar incident in future.

Carrying out an investigation enables organisations to learn from past failures and prevent accidents in the future.  However, while dealing with the immediate causal factors may provide a short term fix, if the root causal factors are not identified, then conditions may develop which lead to a worse accident in future. 

Any investigation which identify operator error as the sole causal factor is not enough – there will be underlying causes that created an environment in which human error is inevitable.  It’s vital to remember that investigations need to be conducted with accident prevention in mind, rather than placing blame.