The last thing anyone wants or needs is an accident in the workplace, which means putting in place accident prevention measures to ensure that your workplace is as safe as it is reasonably possible to be. However, as we all know, accidents can and do happen and it is the proper investigation of these accidents that must be actively initiated. The question is: who are best equipped to do these investigations?
The New Zealand safety legislation allows for the formation of a health and safety committee and the primary function of this forum is to involve everybody that can contribute to preventing injuries (refer Section 19A of the HSE Act).
One of the most important sources of information in pursuit of preventing accidents is previous accidents. If the definition of a hazard is “anything that can cause harm” then the definition of an accident must be “a hazard that caused harm”. It is therefore highly recommended that the safety committee members be involved in accident investigations. They could – and should – involve line managers in the investigation, but their primary focus – to prevent injuries – makes them the most suitable accident investigators in a company.
To take on this responsibility requires committee members being trained in this role. This training should instil in them that safety is not about avoiding something that is bad, it is about achieving a good outcome. This could mean changing the physical environment (hazard management) or ensuring more productive behaviours and fewer mistakes. The safety committee members will ideally learn practical skills that will enable them to investigate accidents and to positively use the results to the benefit of their organisation.
If an accident is not investigated thoroughly it is likely that the same mistake could cause an accident to occur again. Ideally, you want to identify any potential hazards before they can cause any harm - and this should always be the preferred strategy. However, reality dictates that this is not always that easy; accidents do happen. What is vital is that the committee does not squander the opportunity to learn from an accident, identifying the “hazard that caused harm”.
One of the problems with accident investigations is that everybody becomes very defensive. This is the result of an adversarial style of investigation, as in looking for someone to blame for the accident. This problem must be avoided at all cost; the safety committee’s primary purpose is not to afford blame (the committee has no ‘punishment powers’, only management has this authority), but to prevent the accident from ever happening again. They will be much more successful in following an inclusive model in which everyone is in this together and how can they all contribute. The outcome should be to never have the same incident again.
By separating the investigative process (“how can we prevent harm”) from any punitive actions (“who is to blame”) increases the chances of lasting change. The committee focuses on how they can make the workplace ‘idiot-proof’ (so that not even an idiot can harm himself or others) while management deals with the idiots (those who deliberately and/or maliciously break the rules).
Accident investigations are about ‘idiot-proofing’, not idiots.
Paul came to New Zealand from South Africa in the late 1990’s where he held senior human resource positions, specialising in organisational behaviour change. He is the managing director of Adapto Limited based in Auckland, New Zealand.
Adapto offers a refreshingly new way of managing health and safety at workplace. Rather than slavishly following the prescriptions of bureaucrats, focusing on compliance – which invariably means rather unproductive paperwork - They actually help businesses to make safety work towards YOUR goals. Check their health and safety training and workplace safety programmes on their website.