Reducing the frequency and severity of workplace accidents requires a timely investigation when accidents occur. In general, only experienced personnel should conduct interviews of workers who witnessed an accident or have relevant knowledge of the circumstances. If possible, a team should be assigned to this task and an individual with a legal background should be included.
Timely interviews are important to reduce the opportunity for workers to discuss the accident with others and “rethink” what occurred. Workers may be fearful and reluctant to provide the interviewer with accurate facts about the accident. The injured worker or other workers may feel embarrassed, may be fearful of disciplinary action, or be hesitant to talk for any number of reasons. A witness may not want to provide information that might place blame on a friend, other fellow workers, the foreman or supervisor or possibly even themselves.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provide the following guidance on conducting accident investigation interviews.
Appoint a speaker for the group.
Get preliminary statements as soon as possible from all witnesses.
Locate the position of each witness on a master chart (including the direction of view).
Arrange for a convenient time and place to talk to each witness.
Explain the purpose of the investigation (accident prevention) and put each witness at ease.
Listen, let each witness speak freely, and be courteous and considerate.
Take notes without distracting the witness; use a tape recorder only with consent of the witness.
Use sketches and diagrams to help the witness.
Emphasize areas of direct observation – label hearsay accordingly.
Be sincere and do not argue with the witness.
Record the exact words used by the witness to describe each observation – do not “put words into a witness’ mouth.”
Word each question carefully and be sure the witness understands.
Identify the qualifications of each witness (i.e., name, address, occupation, years of experience, etc.).
Supply each witness with a copy of his or her statements – signed statements are desirable.
After interviewing all witnesses, the team should analyze each witness’ statement. They may wish to re-interview one or more witnesses to confirm or clarify key points. While there may be inconsistencies in witnesses’ statements, investigators should assemble the available testimony into a logical order. This information should be analyzed, along with data from the accident site.
Not all people react in the same manner to a particular stimulus. For example, a witness within close proximity to the accident may have an entirely different viewpoint than one who saw it at a distance. Some witnesses may also change their stories after they have discussed it with others. The reason for the change may be additional clues.
A witness who has had a traumatic experience may not be able to recall the details of the accident. A witness who has a vested interest in the results of the investigation may offer biased testimony. Also, eyesight, hearing, reaction time, and the general condition of each witness may affect his or her powers of observation. A witness may omit entire sequences because of a failure to observe them or because their importance was not realized.
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