Rising claims for workplace injuries is leading to calls for more investigation of the circumstances behind employee accidents. Phil Grace explains

There's blood, there's a semi-lifeless worker lying next to machinery on the shop floor. It's a workplace accident, one of 27,477 injuries that occurred to workers in 2001-02. Although the personal tragedy cannot be ignored, the business loss is significant. And insurers will have to pay up under employers' liabilty cover.

Despite Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures showing that the number of those injured in the workplace is falling, an increasing number of injured employees are making claims against their employers.

But companies are still failing to help themselves in one critical activity - investigating workplace accidents.

It may come as a surprise to many that, at present, there is no legal duty to investigate accidents at work. Two years ago, the HSE proposed amending the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations to include such an obligation in law.

However, in light of widespread ignorance about accident investigation, the HSE has changed its approach. Instead, by the end of 2003, it intends issuing guidance to employers and those who might be required to undertake an investigation.

Brokers are an essential element in this process. They need to use their close business relationship with the client to promote the idea of following up on workplace accidents. They should dissuade their clients from thinking that not investigating is a "protection" against claims. Also, the pre-action protocols implemented by the Woolf reforms make investigation even more important.

The broker can help the client to identify which accidents are likely to result in a claim - for example, falls, fractures and accidents involving workplace vehicles such as fork lift trucks - and should, therefore, be notified immediately to the insurer.

Clients should be made aware that early notification is a benefit in terms of preparing the necessary information about the accident. Equally, they should not be concerned about their insurer setting realistic reserves ahead of formal claim notification.

Encouraging the client to adopt an open no-blame culture - where reporting accidents is considered normal - is essential. But once they are reported, it is important that they are investigated. Minor accidents should be followed up quickly and more serious accidents handled more thoroughly.

So why should accidents be investigated?

Any investigation is about determining cause, introducing controls to prevent recurrence, preparing information for accidents that need to be reported to the enforcing authority and in case a civil claim is made.

In the ideal world - and long before any accident arises - risk management should be present in the form of a clear policy on health and safety, including procedures to tackle expected activities such as using machinery, training and potentially dangerous tasks, such as working in confined spaces or at heights.

Hazards in the workplace should be identified, including those people who might be exposed, and then suitable controls agreed and introduced.

Once again, the ideal scenario is for regular reviews of risk assessments to take place along with some type of performance monitoring.

This may well be happening across UK companies but, as HSE research has revealed, it is in the event of an accident that the system breaks down. Only 24% of firms are using the output from accident investigation to update their risk management practices .

Norwich Union supports the HSE's conclusions about establishing a sound approach to accident investigation as an integral part of any good safety management programme. Investigation can reveal vital information that should be acted upon. It can reveal that the risk assessment failed to identify all possible hazards and that the controls that were decided were not sufficient or had not been implemented.

It also may highlight deficiencies in training, which may not have been carried out or was ineffective and misunderstood by the employee. It may be that refresher training was needed to maintain skills and knowledge and reduce risk of accident.

When considering which accidents to investigate it is useful to include "near misses". This description is usually applied to those incidents where there is no personal injury or only damage to property.

In addition to the investigation process, maintaining documentation is vital, including the following:

  • Record the accident in the accident book.
  • Keep copies of all reports to and correspondence with the health and safety authorities.
  • Preserve first aid/medical centre records.
  • Ensure that wages and sick pay details are recorded for any employee injured.
  • Take brief written and signed statements from all direct witnesses and the supervisor for the area involved.
  • Locate all previous risk assessments.
  • Keep copies of all correspondence with equipment and materials suppliers.
  • If any outside contractor is involved (for example, machinery maintenance or cleaners) record relevant names and contact details.
  • Locate the contract or trading terms.
  • Locate method statements and/or machinery maintenance records together with plans and handbooks.
  • Locate material safety data sheets for any substances or materials involved.
  • Above all, remember that the aim of the investigation is to determine cause and the controls needed to prevent recurrence.

  • Phil Grace is a risk manager at Norwich Union
  • What to do after an accident

  • Launch an investigation yourself or instruct your safety consultants to do so.
  • Photograph the machine or area involved.
  • Review any previous complaints about machinery or work practices.
  • Review risk assessments - did they identify the risk and recommend suitable controls?
  • Do they need to be revised?
  • What was availability, suitability and use of personal protection equipment?
  • What training was in place and is more training required?
  • Does the role of supervisors need to be reviewed?
  • If a substance or material is involved, review material safety data sheets and the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (CoSHH) assessments and consider retaining samples.
  • Determine the causes and record steps to be taken to avoid a repeat of the situation.
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