Business and Nonprofit

Accident investigation guide


Employees are your most valuable assets and, while accidents can and do happen, repeats of the same type of accidents should not happen. Effective and thorough accident investigations show employees that you are concerned for their safety and well-being. Other reasons for accident investigation may include:

  • Identifying root causes to accidents
  • Addressing liability issues
  • Exposing errors in processes
  • Identifying and eliminating hazards
  • Decreasing workers’ compensation costs
  • Correcting unsafe acts and unsafe conditions
  • Making recommendations for preventing future accidents.

Prevention of future injuries (to employees and customers) and property damage should always be the focus of an investigation. A thorough investigation of all injuries and property damage can lead to many benefits. This includes identifying the root causes of injuries, property damage, and auto accidents, and giving you and your employees the opportunity to suggest ways to change processes, actions, or behaviors to prevent future, similar-type injuries or accidents.

A thorough accident investigation is necessary because all incidents have a cause that can be determined. If you correct the cause of the injury/accident/property damage, you greatly reduce the risk of another similar injury.

Through proper accident investigation, we can begin to understand the failures, which often give rise to certain patterns of events. We can then improve the conditions that led to the accident/incident by submitting improvement recommendations and keeping them in an open file until all hazards noted in the accident investigation report are resolved. Doing so should help provide a safer, healthier, and more profitable atmosphere for your company. To help you reach this goal, there are 10 primary steps for completing a successful accident investigation and written report. These steps include:

  1. Understanding why accidents are investigated
  2. Evaluating the objectives of an accident investigation
  3. Pre-planning the investigation
  4. Responding to the accident scene
  5. Controlling the accident scene
  6. Investigating the accident
  7. Reviewing the evidence surrounding the accident
  8. Determining the root cause(s) of the accident
  9. Developing corrective and preventive actions

The employee involved in the accident should be involved in the accident investigation process and asked what they would do to prevent it from occurring again. The results of the accident, investigation and corrective measures taken should be communicated to all employees to create safety awareness. This is one of the most important steps.

These steps should help you better understand the importance of accident investigation and effectively investigate an accident in order to prevent future accidents or at least minimize the effects of an accident.

Effective accident investigation starts before an accident occurs with the establishment of a well thought–out accident investigation procedure. Pre-planning for accident investigation is especially important because the quantity and quality of relevant information begins to diminish immediately following the accident. By establishing the essential stages and steps of an accident investigation ahead of time, you can minimize or eliminate the loss of relevant information through cleanup efforts or possible blurring of witnesses’ recollections.

In many cases, supervisors are inclined to fix blame rather than eliminate accident causes. This punitive approach results in “covering up” by non-supervisory personnel, to the detriment of the entire accident prevention program and company. The study of the cause will usually indicate blame, if any, and suitable action can be taken. Punitive action is justified in safety violations only after each person is provided the proper education and training, and physical hazards are eliminated. The analysis of the accident must result in recommendations that reduce the number of accidents and their severity, not in finger-pointing.

Investigative Techniques

Supervisors have the best knowledge of their department and subordinates and are the best person to complete the accident investigation report. A supervisor charged with the responsibility of accident investigation will find the following guides helpful:

  1. Get to the scene. Investigators should arrive at the scene as soon as possible after the accident has been reported to obtain facts quickly while they are still fresh.
  2. Interview injured persons if conditions warrant. Permanent or temporary physical and mental characteristics that may have contributed to the accident and the extent of the injuries should be noted.
  3. Interview witnesses to obtain their versions of the accident. Ask open-ended questions. Bear in mind that statements taken from witnesses immediately after the incident, before they have time to compare stories with each other, are often the most reliable. Get a statement, even if a brief one, as soon as possible. For best results, allow each witness to tell what happened in his or her own way and confirm what they say. They also can complete a witness statement form.
  4. Physical evidence may help determine the cause of the accident. Note mechanical defects and take measurements of distances and dimensions. Was the employee wearing proper personal protective equipment; were glasses being worn if needed, is fatigue an issue; is medication an issue, etc. If at all possible, take photographs of the scene for future reference and to record the extent of damage or injury.
  5. All other evidence should be recorded regarding the accident. This includes weather, road conditions, traffic signal locations, and use of seat belts if the accident involves motor vehicles. Give consideration to adequate lighting, machine condition and guarding, and use of safety equipment and following proper procedures in shop and field accidents.
  6. Transfer all information accurately to a standard accident report and summary form.
  7. The most important outcome of any accident investigation is the determination of cause factors and the implementation of suitable corrective measures. Appropriate action for hazard elimination should be quickly recommended.
  8. To verify that corrective actions were taken, experience has shown that follow-up is important. All recommendations should remain open/pending until corrective measures are completed. Specific employees should be assigned the responsibility of completing the corrective measures in a suitable amount of time.

Accidents and the Supervisor

  • In investigating and reporting accidents, supervisors must avoid the natural inclination to “gloss over” their own shortcomings or those of their subordinates. They will gain the respect of their employees and superiors by honestly reporting their mistakes rather than by attempting to conceal a deficiency that may continue to cause accidents.
  • When making an investigation, a supervisor must identify the “real/root” causes of the accident, which normally will be revealed as specific unsafe acts or conditions. After the facts are compiled, the supervisor should ask, “What caused the employee to do the job wrong?”
    • A poor supervisor will make the dangerous mistake of simply attributing the accident to carelessness, without identifying the specific unsafe act or condition.
    • A good supervisor, asking himself the above question, will come up with an answer that he can do something about. He recognizes that he can correct the safety deficiencies because he realizes they are the result of supervisory action or inaction.

Supervisory Failure

Unfortunately, the “cause behind the cause” of many accidents is often the supervisor’s failure to meet his accident prevention responsibilities. Some common examples of supervisory failure revealed by a continuing review of accident reports are listed below. This list does not cover all incidents of supervisory failure resulting in accidents, but rather gives examples that occur with disturbing frequency:

  • Failing to use simple, understandable instructions and failing to follow up to ensure compliance.
  • Failing to frequently visit areas of responsibility.
  • Permitting employees to enter hazardous areas or perform hazardous tasks prior to taking the necessary precautions or without ensuring the wearing of protective clothing and equipment.
  • Failing to correct previously reported hazards.
  • Giving inadequate instructions, that is, telling an employee what to do but failing to tell him how to do it.
  • Permitting, and in some cases directing, unlicensed or inexperienced personnel to drive vehicles or operate equipment.
  • Failing to offer driver training (even with experienced drivers) at hire and annually.
  • Permitting new and inexperienced personnel to work on power machinery and/or permitting machinery to be operated without proper guards in place or proper training.
  • Failing to ensure the use of proper tools and equipment for the job at hand.
  • Permitting personnel to ride on areas of vehicles or forklift not designed for such purposes or on loads that might shift.

You should use an accident investigation form that is tailored to the type of accident, i.e. Auto Accident, Worker Injury, Property, or Liability. These forms and accident witness forms are available on Prevention Connection.

It is beneficial to put together an Accident Investigation Kit by assembling everything that is needed in one place such as a briefcase, box, etc. The kit should include a clipboard with accident forms, pens, flashlight, tape measure, caution tape, rain cover, disposable camera, this guide, etc. It should be ready at all times for a supervisor to use in the event of an accident.

Additional Resources

Accident form – long version

Accident form – short version

Accident investigation form

Download a PDF Version