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Investigating Workplace Accidents

Updated January 1, 1 . AmFam Team

When the unexpected happens and your employees are injured or sickened at the workplace, the only way to fully understand how to prevent the incident from happening again is by investigating the workplace accident.

After a worker’s been injured, it may be difficult to understand exactly how the accident occurred. But with the right balance of detective work and corrective actions, you may be able to prevent future accidents from happening. With an employer’s guide to accident investigation at your side, you’ll have a better understanding of how to manage an accident scene and make focused corrections to prevent work stoppages and injuries in the future.

Incident Prevention Programs Explore and Correct Potential Hazards Before They Happen

With the understanding that mistakes will be made — that incidents will happen — it’s wise to actively review processes and the ways employees are getting their job done to see if safety improvements can be made proactively. A formal accident investigation checklist should be developed that will help answer — the how, who, what, where, when, why, root causes, contributing factors and prevention recommendations.

Job safety analysis (JSA) practices can help to reduce issues prior to incidents occurring. From reviewing the overall validity of each position and job involved in a given task to understanding each of the steps involved in it, JSA experts can bring to light issues that may have gone unnoticed.

Have your safety managers review these safety fundamentals to prevent incidents before they happen:

  • Study of all working areas to detect/eliminate or control the behavioral, physical or environmental hazards that could contribute to incidents/accidents.
  • Study of all operating methods, practices and administrative controls.
  • Enact educational, instructional training and enforcement procedures to minimize the human factors that contribute to incidents/accidents.
  • Thoroughly investigate the root causes of every incident resulting in property damage or an injury whether or not medical treatment was required. These investigations will help determine contributing circumstances, and may help to prevent future events.
  • Undertake programs that change or control the hazardous conditions, procedures and practices that resulted in the incident or near miss.
  • Create a follow-up evaluation routine to ensure that the review process has effectively reduced risk.

Why Should You Investigate Workplace Accidents?

The fact is, workers get injured on the job every day. The extent of the injuries they suffer depends on many factors. Getting to the bottom of what’s happened and understanding the root causes of why these instances have occurred can benefit everyone. Here are some reasons why it’s imperative that you should investigate workplace accidents:

You demonstrate a commitment to employee health and safety. Workers will appreciate your investment in time and resources to learn about what happened.

You can prevent future injuries and illnesses. Your staff will work more safely once they understand how to prevent the incident or exposure from occurring again.

Investigating can save lives. Statistically, in workplaces where incidents get reviewed regularly, an overall reduction in severity of injuries and fatalities follows.

Learning from it can save you money. The cost of properly investigating and making workplace adjustments has been proven to be far less expensive than the cost of repeated injuries and loss of labor.

It helps to maintain positive morale among workers. An injury-free environment promotes a healthier, more capable and positive workforce.

Investigating improves management skills. As supervisors investigate issues, they’re going to be more integrated into worker conditions and may uncover more ways to improve safety through the process.

Asking the Right Questions Can Expose Issues and Liabilities

The long list of questions to ask below may seem like a lot to take on. But the potential benefits of getting a full-spectrum analysis of exactly how an incident unfolded can yield important details on how to best understand what occurred. Moreover, it can expose opportunities in which your business can improve safety and decrease liabilities. Have your safety inspector ask these questions when investigating incidents:


  • How is the injured employee feeling now?
  • How did this injury occur?
  • How could this incident have been prevented?


  • Who was injured in the incident?
  • Who saw the incident?
  • Who were the employees working with the injured at the time of the event?
  • Who assigned the person to the work on the task that resulted in the event?
  • Who trained the individual on the hazards and protective measures involved in the event?
  • Who were other employees involved in the event?


  • What were the underlying issues of the incident?
  • What injuries resulted?
  • What was the task or process involved that the injured worker was doing when the event occurred?
  • What had the person been instructed to do?
  • What tools were in use at the time of the event?
  • What machinery was use at the time of the event?
  • What training had been offered?
  • What specific precautions were required?
  • What protective equipment was in use?
  • What protective equipment should have been in play?
  • What can be done to prevent the incident from happening again?
  • What preventative safety rules were in place?


  • When did the incident occur?
  • When did the person begin work on this task?
  • When was the person appointed to this department?
  • When were the existing hazards of the task addressed?
  • When had the supervisor last reviewed job progress?


  • Why was this person injured?
  • Why did this person do what they did?
  • Why wasn’t personal protective equipment used?
  • Why weren’t specific instructions detailing the hazard issued?
  • Why didn’t the person check with a safety official or supervisor when they noticed something was wrong?
  • Why did the person continue to work when known risks posed a hazard?


  • Where did the incident occur?
  • Where was the person at the time of the incident?
  • Where was the supervisor at that time?
  • Where were fellow workers at that time?

The Basics of Incident Investigation

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends that employers have an investigation plan in place in order to react quickly to an incident. Safety management personnel should review the event to understand the root causes of the problem and implement changes in order to prevent it from recurring. It’s only by understanding the basics of incident investigation that meaningful adjustments can be made. Here are some pointers for developing an investigation plan:

Explore the incident. OSHA describes the term “incident” as a shortcoming in the design of the workplace environment or a failure in a process that resulted in an otherwise avoidable event. The key here is for management to step away from placing blame by using the term “accident” and to explore the circumstances around the incident or accident scene so the same issue can be averted in the future.

Understand the root causes. Getting to the bottom of why an incident happened is the only way to fully expose the events that led to it. Typically managers will review the conditions and procedures in play when the event occurred. Were time-saving measures taken that exposed a worker to increased risk or injury? Were safeties of guards removed or modified on machinery?

Count close calls. It’s here where self-reporting is key. Sometimes really bad things don’t happen at all — but they nearly did. When something almost goes wrong, be sure employees feel safe approaching a safety manager to discuss these types of issues. There’s as much to learn here as there is in an incident resulting in injury. It may be fair to say that there’s more to learn — because no one was actually hurt — and your business will still benefit by being safer for it because future incidents may be averted. Workers will feel much more comfortable if the culture at the workplace is based on safety and not blaming individuals.

Investigate Processes and Programs — Not Behaviors

By investigating all incidents, you can find flaws in current processes and programs — and not worker behaviors — which can lead employees to feel that management is seeking solutions and not looking for a scapegoat. Instead, they’ll feel comfortable knowing that a fact-finding mission is underway to improve their health and safety that can help prevent incidents from happening again. Once an incident or near-miss is reported, it’s important to take the following steps that investigates processes and programs — not behaviors:

Secure the site. Similar to the way the authorities seal off a crime scene, it’s important that the area around the incident be made secure to preserve evidence that may be key to revealing new, safer protocols. Safety management personnel should use caution tape or other means to physically block access to the area. This should remain in place until the incident site has been reviewed by a safety manager.

Document the event. After the area is secure, have the investigator photograph all relevant items and areas around the incident including unsafe conditions. Any property damage should be documented as well. This information will need to go into a final report so it’s also important that notes on the images are carefully taken at that time.

Get the facts. When an investigator is first building the incident report, they need to learn about how the event unfolded. They should interview witnesses, and inquire about the physical evidence documented earlier to get an understanding on how the incident unfolded.

Never place blame. Rather, structure your inquiry in a step-by-step fashion that seeks facts and does not jump to conclusions. Blaming is not the objective because it does not reveal the chain of events that led to the incident, potentially leaving it to be repeated in the future.

Find the root cause. Once the evidence, facts and witness details have been gathered, it’s time to get to the bottom of the problem. If unsafe conditions contributed to the incident, refer the issue to a safety committee to quickly resolve the issue.

Make critical corrections. The end result of this whole effort is to build a plan that leads to a safer future workplace. Make repairs where necessary, install guards, post signage that reminds workers of an existing hazard and do what needs to get done to prevent the event from recurring. Train employees on how to stay safe when conditions similar to the incident arise. It may be the case that reporting needs to happen due to certain legal requirements when an incident occurs. For instance, when an event results in serious injury, you may be required report the event to state, federal or local authorities.

Effective Accident Investigation Is Good for Business

The benefits of having a solid plan to manage issues can do more than create a safer workplace — it can also help to make your business more profitable. Your employees may be less likely to repeat mistakes made previously and that can lead to increased productivity. It may take time and continued attention to understand how the incident occurred, but afterwards you could find an overall improvement in safety and worker moral. With a sharper eye on liabilities, and a plan to help prevent them your business can save on worker downtime and worker's comp claims too. And those are all great reasons why an effective safety program is good for business.

While you’re putting into action to this new way of investigating incidents, be sure to check in with your American Family Insurance agent (Opens in a new tab) and explore the advantages of a commercial umbrella liability policy. By pairing this coverage with these new investigation protocols, you may find more peace of mind because your business is a safer place, and your hard-earned investments will be better protected.

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