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June 8, 2018

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Accident Investigation

How to make accident investigations work for your organisation

SHP speaks to Joe Murphy, Head of Health, Safety, Wellbeing and Security at Southern Water, about making the most of accident investigations to drive improvements within your organisation.

Accidents in the workplace are never welcome, but rather than being something to brush under the carpet, these incidents offer businesses the chance to improve and right wrongs for the future. Key to this, says Murphy, is ensuring that investigations can be carried out thoroughly and accurately, the groundwork for which can be laid within the culture of an organisation.

Ask the tough questions

“In retail or in the hospitality industry a complaint is gold. It’s free customer feedback. Although it’s an undesired event, an accident can tell you where the problems are. You just have to investigate properly and ask yourself the tough questions, and if you’re not doing that you’re not doing justice to yourself.”

Internal investigations are often, says Murphy, seen as “box-ticking exercises” used to cover tracks and show that lessons have been taken on board, if not necessarily learnt. “In the construction industry, often a client will tell an organisation to do an investigation report and they will look at the basic reasons why something has happened and say ‘right, this guy needs some more training’ and that’s that. That will be handed up to the client, they’ll be happy and that’s it. But if they go a bit deeper there are bigger and more difficult questions to be asked.

“If you ask these questions you can find yourself wanting as an organisation, but until you start digging into these questions and digging into the events leading up to and immediately after any incident you’re not going to be able to have control in the future and you’re in danger of repeating it.”

How to get the “maximum value”

One key element of maximising investigations is creating a fair culture within the organisation. Murphy explains: “In a fair-blame culture, if people have accidents they’re not necessarily going to be punished. They may have contravened the rules, but with the very best of intentions. So once you get a consistent investigation process in place, you let everyone know that there is a fair culture and that they are not automatically going to get punished. That then puts organisations on a good base from which to move forward.”

Prior to joining Southern Water this spring, Murphy spent five years working on health and safety for the multi-billion-pound High Speed 2 rail construction project, a development that has included interactions with a huge variety of clients and contractors and has provided some excellent examples of learning from incidents in a proactive and blame-free environment.

Creating a blame-free environment

“Once you’ve got your fair culture, people are far happier to freely give information and if someone’s at fault they’ll put their hand up and say ‘I made a mistake’, and we don’t expect people to be sacked from their jobs because they made a mistake with the best intentions. We’ve got some really good examples coming from High Speed 2 where people felt empowered to report things that had gone wrong because they knew that they would be judged fairly, and in fact we commended people for volunteering information.”

Murphy will discuss how this sort of environment can be created and other steps businesses can take, like training proper incident investigation techniques such as interviewing, handling and protecting evidence and taking witness statements.

“People want to see the action being taken. I want to see good, proactive investigations with lots of actions coming out of them, and when actions are recommended we need to deliver on them. This talk would be useful for health and safety professionals but also anyone in project management and anyone who may influence an investigation.”

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