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How to Conduct Accident-Witness Interviews

Thousands of accidents occur in workplaces throughout the United States every day. Conducting witness interviews at the scene of an accident is a crucial part of the investigatory process, as these accounts provide important information that can help explain what caused the accident.

When accidents are investigated, the emphasis should be on finding the root cause, not on finding fault, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Safety & Health Program Management Guidelines.

About the investigation process, OSHA says:

“Although a first look may suggest that ‘employee error’ is a major factor, it is rarely sufficient to stop there. A thorough analysis will generally reveal a number of deeper factors, which permitted or even encouraged an employee’s action. Such factors may include a supervisor’s allowing or pressuring the employee to take shortcuts in the interest of production, inadequate equipment, or a work practice which is difficult for the employee to carry out safely.”

Click the link for OSHA’s accident/incident investigation guidelines.

Among the reasons to investigate workplace accidents are to:

  • Determine the root cause, in order to prevent similar accidents.
  • Fulfill legal requirements.
  • Determine the cost of an accident.
  • Determine compliance with applicable safety regulations.
  • Process workers’ compensation claims.

Incidents that involve no injury or property damage should still be investigated to determine the hazards that should be corrected, said OSHA. The same principles apply to both minor and serious accidents, the agency said.

Interviewing Witnesses

Witnesses may be under severe emotional stress or afraid to speak openly, making the interview a real challenge. OSHA advises that investigators interview witnesses as soon as possible and do this alone, not in a group, to ensure that accounts are accurate and truthful. The interview itself can occur at the scene of the accident, to better establish the positions of each person involved, or away from the scene, where the witness may feel more comfortable and secure.

Investigators should inform witnesses that the primary purpose for taking their statements is to prevent future accidents. However, witnesses need to know that confidentiality is not assured.

If unionized employees request representation, stop the interview until a representative arrives, OSHA said.

Interviewing Do’s and Don’ts

Interviewing is an art. You want to elicit as much information as possible while putting the witness at ease. Some considerations to remember when conducting an interview:

  • Ask open-ended questions that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no.
  • Be a good listener. Allow witnesses to tell the story in their words, in the time they need.
  • Ask follow-up questions
  • Take notes but try to be inconspicuous.
  • Record the interview. Remember to obtain the individual’s consent before recording.
  • Review the statement, confirm with the witness that the statement is correct, and sign it after the witness does.
  • End on a positive note.

Tactics to avoid:

  • Intimidating, interrupting or prejudging the witness.
  • Assisting the witness in answering questions.
  • Asking leading questions.
  • Becoming emotionally involved.
  • Jumping to conclusions.
  • Revealing discoveries of the investigation.
  • Making promises that can’t be kept.

General, open-ended questions to ask:

  • Where were you at the time of the accident?
  • What were you doing at the time?
  • What did you see or hear?
  • What were the environmental conditions (weather, light, noise, etc.) at the time?
  • What was (were) the injured worker(s) doing at the time?
  • In your opinion, what caused the accident?
  • How might similar accidents be prevented in the future?
  • Were any other witnesses around? Do you know the names of other witnesses?
  • How are you connected with others involved in the accident?

After the Interviews

The employer should analyze each witness’ statement at the conclusion of all interviews. Although there may be inconsistencies in the statements, investigators should assemble the given testimony and analyze the information along with data from the accident site.

The primary purpose of accident investigations is to prevent future occurrences, as OSHA stresses in its investigation guidelines: “The information obtained through the investigation should be used to update and revise the inventory of hazards and/or the program for hazard prevention and control. Implications from the root causes of the accident need to be analyzed for their impact on all other operations and procedures.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.

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