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What Is An Incident And Why Should It Be Investigated?

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The term incident can be defined as an occurrence, condition, or situation arising in the course of work that resulted in or could have resulted in injuries, illnesses, damage to health, or fatalities.

The term “accident” is also commonly used, and can be defined as an unplanned event that interrupts the completion of an activity, and that may (or may not) include injury or property damage. Some make a distinction between accident and incident. They use the term incident to refer to an unexpected event that did not cause injury or damage that time but had the potential. “Near miss” or “dangerous occurrence” are also terms for an event that could have caused harm but did not.



Please note: The term incident is used in some situations and jurisdictions to cover both an “accident” and “incident”. It is argued that the word “accident” implies that the event was related to fate or chance. When the root cause is determined, it is usually found that many events were predictable and could have been prevented if the right actions were taken – making the event not one of fate or chance (thus, the word incident is used). For simplicity, we will now use the term incident to mean all of the above events.

The information that follows is intended to be a general guide for employers, supervisors, health and safety committee members, or members of an incident investigation team. When incidents are investigated, the emphasis should be concentrated on finding the root cause of the incident so you can prevent the event from happening again. The purpose is to find facts that can lead to corrective actions, not to find fault. Always look for deeper causes. Do not simply record the steps of the event.



Reasons to investigate a workplace incident include:

  • most importantly, to find out the cause of incidents and to prevent similar incidents in the future
  • to fulfill any legal requirements
  • to determine the cost of an incident
  • to determine compliance with applicable regulations (e.g., occupational health and safety, criminal, etc.)
  • to process workers’ compensation claims

The same principles apply to an inquiry of a minor incident and to the more formal investigation of a serious event. Most importantly, these steps can be used to investigate any situation (e.g., where no incident has occurred … yet) as a way to prevent an incident.



Investigating a Worksite Incident

Investigating a worksite incident— a fatality, injury, illness, or close call— provides employers and workers the opportunity to identify hazards in their operations and shortcomings in their safety and health programs. Most importantly, it enables employers and workers to identify and implement the corrective actions necessary to prevent future incidents.

Incident investigations that focus on identifying and correcting root causes, not on finding fault or blame, also improve workplace morale and increase productivity, by demonstrating an employer’s commitment to a safe and healthful workplace.

Incident investigations are often conducted by a supervisor, but to be most effective, these investigations should include managers and employees working together, since each bring different knowledge, understanding and perspectives to the investigation.



In conducting an incident investigation, the team must look beyond the immediate causes of an incident. It is far too easy, and often misleading, to conclude that carelessness or failure to follow a procedure alone was the cause of an incident. To do so fails to discover the underlying or root causes of the incident, and therefore fails to identify the systemic changes and measures needed to prevent future incidents. When a shortcoming is identified, it is important to ask why it existed and why it was not previously addressed.

For example:

  • If a procedure or safety rule was not followed, why was the procedure or rule not followed?
  • Did production pressures play a role, and, if so, why were production pressures permitted to jeopardize safety?
  • Was the procedure out-of-date or safety training inadequate? If so, why had the problem not been previously identified, or, if it had been identified, why had it not been addressed?



These examples illustrate that it is essential to discover and correct all the factors contributing to an incident, which nearly always involve equipment, procedural, training, and other safety and health program deficiencie.

Addressing underlying or root causes is necessary to truly understand why an incident occurred, to develop truly effective corrective actions, and to minimize or eliminate serious consequences from similar future incidents.

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