By Jason Hyer, Lead Safety Advisor (email)
Safety Management Group
You’re supervising a jobsite that’s two hours away from your company’s offices, and the unthinkable happens: one of your subcontractor’s craftspeople has been seriously injured. His coworkers are performing first aid, and you can hear the ambulance’s siren as it approaches. Work has stopped completely as everyone looks on. What do you do next?
It’s a hypothetical question, but a very important one. The injury has serious implications for your company, the subcontractor, and the owner. OSHA may become involved, as will everyone’s insurance companies. The worker’s family may bring in an attorney. Everything that happens from this point forward hinges upon the steps you take in securing the accident site and performing a preliminary investigation.
Most supervisors have minimal training when it comes to responding to emergencies, and instinct doesn’t always provide the right answers. That’s why it’s important to prepare for the possibility of an accident and the realities of the initial investigation by developing an accident investigation kit.
A well-prepared accident investigation kit will include all the materials you need to gather information, along with clear instructions for the steps to take. You can put all of the items into a small box. Keep one at the jobsite trailer, and make sure that every field crew carries one with them. (While it might be tempting to purchase nice tool or tackle boxes for your accident investigation kits, remember that some workers might find another use for the boxes and dispose of your hard work.)
Accident investigation checklist. In a crisis situation, it may be difficult to remember all the steps that must be taken, so the most important item is a step-by-step checklist. Having a checklist will keep you focused on all of the tasks that should be completed, keep you from missing key details, and make it easier to supervise what can be a very confusing and emotional situation.
Signs and barricade tape. It’s a good idea to include both “caution” and “danger” signs and tape in the kit, so you can immediately mark off areas to protect others on the site and ensure that evidence isn’t inadvertently moved or tampered with. Be sure to provide a wide area around the actual incident site so that the investigation can proceed without interference.
Camera. The old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words is particularly true when it comes to an accident investigation. Whether you choose a digital or a disposable, shoot as many pictures as you can from as many angles and positions as possible. Once you think you’ve taken too many photos, take 100 more. Better too many photos, than not enough (You’ll want to verify that the owner doesn’t have any policies prohibiting photography.).
Measuring devices. A set of reference scales that you can place in photographs (just like they do on television crime dramas) and a 25-foot tape measure will give you a way to record accurate measurements of everything at the scene. Don’t try to eyeball distances, because having accurate measurements will help anyone investigating the incident develop more precise data. For example, in a fall situation, there can be a significant amount of difference between the force of a 20-foot fall and a 30-foot fall.
Gloves. Be sure your kit contains both leather and latex gloves. The leather gloves provide protection from damaged equipment or sharp materials, while the latex gloves will keep you from coming in contact with blood-borne pathogens when tending to an accident victim or cleaning up afterwards.
Sign-in sheet. It’s important to record the names of all the workers who are typically in the immediate area, and whether or not they were on the site at the time of the incident.
Witness forms and pens. Have at least 20 copies of a witness form and several pens, so that you can capture statements from witnesses while the incident is still fresh in their minds. When questioning witnesses, remember Joe Friday from the old Dragnet show, and let “Just the facts, ma’am” be your guide. You don’t want to try to identify the cause, assign blame, or look for opinions at this point. All you want to do is have each witness record exactly what he or she saw.
Don’t delay this process, even if workers are upset. You want to gather the information before their memory begins to play tricks on them. It may be a good idea to say, “You know, I understand that this is rough, but we need to get the basic facts right away. We don’t want to get anyone in trouble. We just want to figure out what happened so that nobody else gets hurt.”
To get the most useful witness statements, ask open-ended questions and encourage them to write down their answers, rather than answering you out loud. Because these witness statements have the potential of being discussed in court, do not try to influence the answer. A question such as “What did you see happen?” or “Did you see anything that might have caused them to fall?” will prompt a more honest and usable answer than “Do you think Joe did a bad job of attaching his lanyard?”
Digital Voice or Cassette recorder and tape. In the heat of a situation, it may be easier to dictate your notes and take statements from employees electronically, rather than on paper. Having a recorder in the kit gives you that option.
Paper and pens. There’s never enough paper at incidents, so it’s a good idea to include a small notebook and a pad of lined paper, along with pens and a permanent marker. The marker can also be used to identify objects or mark areas that you’re photographing.
Other items. A flashlight with batteries is always handy for night incidents or those that take place in dark indoor areas. It’s also a good idea to include a card with contact information for both people within the company and government agencies such as OSHA and the local hazardous waste response team. That way, you won’t have to scramble to find the numbers when you need them.
One last thought. If an incident occurs, protect the scene, particularly if it involves a fatality. You known that OSHA and local authorities will want to investigate, and if they see that things have been moved or changed around, they may suspect that you’re trying to hide something. Keeping the site untouched is a sign that you’re willing to cooperate with the investigators and that will benefit you as they perform their work.