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When accidents, injuries and near misses occur it can be stressful, frustrating, scary, it can put everybody on edge, and often, the conducting of an incident investigation is the last thing on everyone’s mind.
Many employers do not have established accident investigation policies or procedures and often those who do have policies and procedures in place, rarely follow through in consistently conducting thorough investigations.
This can be caused by expectations that are not set, clearly defined, or understood.
You may have heard someone say, “I thought somebody else was going to do it”. Other times it may be looked at as an inconvenience or not serious enough of an incident to invest time into. “Why do I have to do a near miss report? Nobody got hurt.”, or “It was a couple of stitches, no big deal”. Don’t let these excuses or others derail your safety program.
Purpose of an Incident Investigation
At minimum employers are required by OSHA to conduct accident investigations for all OSHA recordable injuries and insurance providers require incident documentation for incidents that result in or may result in a claim. But these are just superficial reasons why we conduct incident investigations.
The prime objective of an incident investigation is to prevent future incidents. They are not to point blame, or to apply discipline. The incident investigation helps us to gather the factual information of Who, What, Where, When and How. Once this information has been gathered, we can analyze the incident and identify the Whyor the root causes.
Root causes are the underlying causes or fundamental reasons for the incident. When a worker cuts his hand because he was not wearing gloves while handling sharp material, most people would say “this is an open and shut case of employee negligence not wearing PPE.
Retrain the employee and back to work business as usual.” But further analysis may identify, that the employee had not been provided with gloves, or the supervisor never wears his gloves and doesn’t require his guys to wear them. Maybe the gloves
provided aren’t the right glove for the job and employees often remove them. It may cause us to re-evaluate our training program.
There are many factors that can be at play when determining the root causes of incidents. Blaming incidents on employee negligence or misbehavior is the easy way out and will do nothing to prevent future accidents. Once we’ve identified the root causes we can then identify and implement appropriate corrective actions. This may require that we change our processes, implement engineering controls, conduct PPE assessments and provide PPE, conducting training, etc.
It is also critical that we share these valuable lessons learned with the entire company and our peers.
In the construction industry, workers and crews are divided across a geographic area, and may never come in contact with those who were on site where the incident occurred.
It is highly likely that the same problems you are having on one site are also happening on others. Evaluate your other sites to ensure you don’t have similar accidents waiting to happen. Don’t be selfish with this valuable information.
Value of Incident Investigations
With each incident there are direct costs, such as Medical Care, repair or replacement of damaged materials, workers comp, insurance premiums, etc.
However, the indirect costs are often much higher due to lost man hours and production while job was shut down, retraining of employees, supervisors and management time spent investigating accidents and processing claims, etc. Accidents and injuries are much more costly than what you think.
There’s an old saying that goes “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste”.
Accidents, injuries, and near misses are all valuable learning opportunities we cannot lose out on. The accident has already happened, and the damage is done.
Let’s not repeat the same mistake twice. This is why the investigation of near misses are so critical.
Near misses are defined as: an unplanned event that did not result in injury, illness or damage – but had the potential to do so. If we have the opportunity to learn from near misses, we must take them. These lessons are free, but the next time it happens, they may not be.
Additionally, it is critical that these injuries be documented for analysis and improvement of the safety program. If by mid-year we have already had eight hand injuries, we can quickly identify that there is something very wrong with our safety program and we need to focus in on hand safety.
But if these incidents are not reported or documented, we won’t be able to diagnose the problem accurately, or we may not even realize he have a problem.
Every incident we prevent as a result of conducting effective incident investigations is a life saved, it is one less person in pain or suffering, it is money and time saved.
However, we will never know exactly how many incidents our efforts will have prevented, because they never happened. It has been my goal as a safety professional to save one life. I believe that through focused efforts on incident investigations and corrective actions we can save one life.
- Serious / Other-Than-Serious / Posting Requirements – $12,934 per violation
- Failure to Abate Prior Violation – $12,934 per day beyond the abatement date
- Willful / Repeated Violations – $129,336
Fines alone can be substantial, especially if employers have a history of violations, previous citations, or issues that have made them subject to OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program or criminal violations. In addition, ancillary costs may persist into the future and have a significant impact on a businesses’ bottom line and ability to remain in business.
- Costs associated with abatement – Employers are required by law to certify full and complete abatement of alleged hazards, which means they must first determine what, according to OSHA, should be done to abate the condition noted in the violation.Many times employers simply explain that “more training” will prevent future recurrence. Often, however, OSHA requires substantial changes in materials, equipment, and practices used by employers. Not only do these changes inherently cost time and money, they may also impact employers through slowed or reduced rates of production, which directly affects revenue.
- Risks of future litigation – OSHA citations create the potential for collateral damage, including civil lawsuits related to liability, workers’ compensation, personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits, indemnification proceedings, and more. They can also open the door to parallel inspections and sanctions from other regulatory authorities, ranging from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the Wage and Hourly Division (DOL). These matters are fact-specific, but that can be substantially impacted by OSHA citations.
- Repeat citations – OSHA’s repeat citation policy allows the agency to classify new violations involving similar hazards related to the same CFR standard as repeat violations, which carry fines up to $129,336. This can significantly impact employers, especially when companies operate multiple locations and facilities.
- Willful citations – Violations classified as willful allege employers intentionally and knowingly disregarded regulations. OSHA dedicates additional resources to handling willful citations, which can not only result in significantly enhanced fines, punitive damages, and criminal violations, but also future risks involving increased oversight (i.e. more frequent inspections and citations) and company reputation. In some cases, willful violations may have criminal implications, especially if they result in catastrophes and / or death.
- Competition / loss of contracts – Reputation is not only important to shareholders, employees, and consumers, but also to contractors and other companies with whom employers conduct business. Poor safety records can prevent the acquisition of new business contracts, and retaining current contracts, which is why citations and the levels the citations are graded at can put companies at a disadvantage and threaten their bottom line. In highly competitive industries, this can be magnified, as some companies decline projects involving businesses with even “serious” violations or a record of poor safety performance.
OSHA citations that seem small or insignificant can end up being extremely costly. OSHA citations remain on a company’s record for up to 5 years.
Reducing the potential for having citations is the best strategy through the hierarchy of controls, but if that inevitably fails you need the advice of experts to make informed decisions, such as to contest or to settle, redefine the category of the citation, reduce the fine amount or what abatement strategy to incorporate.