There are many problems associated with investigating accidents in the workplace. In this article I’ve chosen seven common problems that I have encountered investigating accidents. They are not listed in any particular order of merit or frequency.
1. Accuracy. Accuracy is a real problem when you are trying to get to the bottom of an incident or an accident. The people that you interview have not been trained to be observant or to be a witness. This means that they are often unprepared to answer questions that require them to be accurate in their recollection. Because their memories will fade with time, its important to interview them as soon as possible after the event.
2. What did they actually see? Many people claim to be witnesses to accidents when they have only seen the results but not the events leading up to the accident itself. For example, if there is a collision between two forklifts, the witness will claim to have seen the accident and then make an assumption regarding the cause when they have seen the result. If they are a witness to an impact accident, ask them where they were standing at the time of the impact. This will reveal whether or not they saw the events leading up to the incident.
3. Protecting a workmate. Regrettably, in tight knit working communities, a witness will often try and minimize the actions of a workmate. They do this with the best of intentions but provide a considerable barrier to discovering the root cause of the accident. Their loyalty is misplaced but understandable. Often, with shrewd questioning you will be able to get to the truth of the matter.
4. Conflicting statements. When you go over your notes, you will notice that some of the statements are in direct conflict with each other. At this stage you have to remember that they are relying on their memory and interpretation of the events. This is not deliberate misinformation but the way we humans perceive events. Your only recourse is to go back and re-interview those people who have given you conflicting information.
5. Interpretation of questions and answers. This can be a difficult situation which occurs when your questioning is a little bit too open. Sometimes it’s necessary to make sure that your witness understands your question clearly. By the same token, it is very easy to misinterpret their answers. With practice, your questioning technique and your listening technique will improve and become much more accurate.
6. Changing their story. Some witnesses will answer a question and then immediately change their answer because they are thinking about the consequences of that particular answer. This is irritating because it prolongs the questioning process. These witnesses have to be treated gently so that they have sufficient confidence in their answers. You may have to encourage them and give them positive reinforcement when they stick to their original answer.
7. Vague on details. Many people have speech patterns that are vague. As witnesses they are of limited value because they are so hard to pin down on any usable fact. My advice is to be patient, help them to become more accurate and factual until you have information which is usable.
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Blayne Webb, Director, Barringtons