The Benefits of Taking Incident Investigations Seriously

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Originally Published by: Construction Dive — February 3, 2022
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Just the term "incident investigation" can sometimes make employees nervous or hesitant to participate in important safety assessments.

Nevertheless, getting to the bottom of a construction site incident is the best way to prevent similar situations in the future. Companies can overcome employee concerns and gather more complete information that results in valuable action items by planning and solidly executing incident investigations, according to a recent webinar from CSDZ, a Minneapolis-based construction insurance company.

A construction worker wearing hard hat, sunglasses, mask and gloves

"If we don't understand why an incident happened, we have no chance of preventing recurrence, and that's really what we're trying to do," said Rob Dahl, risk and safety specialist at CSDZ.

Jobsite incidents are not just a matter of chance, he said. Proper investigations could uncover opportunities to improve underlying issues all the way up the employee chain. Areas that might need tweaking include management systems, work procedures, communication, incorrect work equipment and inadequate protective equipment.  

Conducting robust incident investigations demonstrates a commitment to employee safety. Plus, investigations can help an employer's bottom line. For example, gaining full knowledge of an incident can prevent fraudulent workers compensation filings or insurance claims. 

When to investigate

Ideally, all incidents should be analyzed, Dahl said. Even those with minor consequences shouldn't be dismissed. The more incidents that builders investigate, the more data that they have at their fingertips to reach conclusions that prevent a future incident. 

Labeling an incident as a "fluke" or "freak accident" isn't helpful because the team then believes they couldn't have done anything to prevent it and gives up on learning anything from it, Dahl said. 

In reality, few incidents are flukes. About 80% of workplace incidents are caused by human error and 20% involve equipment failures, according to a Department of Energy Study. Even those rare cases of "freak accidents" have teachable moments.

An accident doesn't have to be serious to constitute a learning opportunity. A near miss resulting in no injuries or property damage still provides valuable information about what prevented the loss.

Learning from mistakes that didn't result in a loss is a low-risk, low-cost way to change behaviors. An investigation should be mandatory for any near miss with high loss potential, such as when a building could have burned down or a person could have died, Dahl said.

Empowering workers to report

Incident prevention begins with recognizing hazards and risks. Then, employees must report risky behaviors or incidents so managers can launch an investigation.

Only a small percentage of workers are willing to speak up to another employee about an unsafe act or report one to a supervisor, Dahl said. Many incidents go unreported due to systemic inadequacies in workplace customs or culture. 

Embarrassment and fear of retaliation or punishment are two of the top reasons employees don't file incident reports. Employees are most likely to report incidents and help with incident investigations when they understand they won't be punished for participating.

Of the human error incidents cited in the Department of Energy study, about 70% are because of systemic weaknesses; only 30% are caused by the individual worker. Employees involved in incidents often are blamed right away or assumed to have exhibited poor judgment. Rather, many make the "least worst" decision based on work pressures, culture, or a supervisor's tendency to overlook issues, Dahl said.

"A lot of times you'll find that we put workers in positions to make bad decisions because of the environment that we've created," he said.

Planning for success

Traditional approaches to incident investigations often fail, Dahl said. Generally, companies don't provide sufficient training on how to conduct investigations. This results in poorly crafted and executed analyses that lack positive impact.

Companies should have clear forms and processes for reporting incidents and conducting investigations. Building trust with investigation participants is key, as is separating them from other interviewees and treating the situation like an information gathering session instead of an interrogation.

Supervisors miss a chance to improve workplace safety, culture, and operations if they don't communicate incident investigation findings to other employees, Dahl said.

"There's a huge opportunity to be transparent about the incidents that have taken place and communicate to others so we have a better opportunity to prevent it in the future," he said.