4 steps to running an effective HAZCHEM incident investigation

Apr 2, 2019 Posted by Walter Ingles

An effective HAZCHEM incident investigation quickly gets to the root causes of a workplace incident and identifies practicable measures for ensuring the incident never happens again. During an effective investigation workers and staff feel confident to open up about what happened and freely discuss the incident. This blog offers 4 key steps to running an investigation that is accepted by your workers and actually delivers a result.

1. Focus on ‘cause and prevention’ not ‘blame and punishment’

From the very outset, be clear that the purpose of the investigation is ’prevention’. You want workers and staff to understand the evidence you will be gathering, and the questions you will be asking, are to establish root causes and system failures. And once these are determined, measures will be put into place to prevent similar incidents from occurring.

If you are investigating an incident that involved a fatality or serious injury, many workers will already be feeling a great deal of emotional stress. Then if they perceive the investigation is only being conducted to find blame or punish those at fault, it is unlikely they’ll be willing to completely open up about what happened. Upset workers might:

  • Leave out important information. (Eg, not mention they rushed through their pre-operation safety checks)

  • Lie about the sequence of events. (Eg, tell an investigator their deceased co-worker arrived at work on-time when they hadn’t)

  • Destroy or tamper with evidence. (Eg, put a container of flammable liquids back in the chemical store when it had been on the workbench at the time of the incident).

Of course some workers will act in their own self-interest, but in many cases a person withholding information might be more motivated by the fear or getting someone else into trouble. Australian culture responds very negatively to anyone perceived as a ‘dobber’, so you’ll want to reassure your workers that their testimony is not ‘dobbing’ but will contribute to the improvement of the organisation’s safety measures.

2. Be respectful and compassionate

Incidents involving hazardous chemicals can be particularly severe, and your staff may have just witnessed one of their workmates being injured or killed in a chemical fire, explosion or spill. As soon as workers hear they will need to provide a witness statement and be interviewed after a serious incident their stress levels will increase.

It is unlikely your workers will fully open up in the investigation if they feel their injured workmates are being dishonoured or treated with disdain. Be respectful, remember that workers will notice how you take photographs and video footage. Be especially compassionate when taking witnesses back to the scene of the incident, asking them to re-enact the sequence of events, or review footage of a deceased worker.

3. Run a transparent investigation

A transparent investigation builds trust and encourages the cooperation and involvement of your workforce. Sometimes when people feel an incident investigation is the exclusive domain of management and external contractors, they could start to mistakenly believe that things are being hushed or covered up.

Running a transparent investigation is not about sharing details that are sensitive and confidential.  Your most important consideration is to help your workers understand from the outset:

  • What you are doing (investigating the fuel spill that injured 3 workers and shut down the plant for 3 hours)

  • Why you are doing it (to establish the contributing factors to the spill and put additional safety measures in place so it won’t happen again)

  • Who will be doing it (a team led by the HSE Manager that includes worker representatives and external chemical safety auditors)

  • How you are doing it (interviewing key witnesses, people who normally work in that area, reviewing workplace documents, seeking the advice of external specialists).

  • When it will be done (during the month of April and finalised by May 7)

4. Focus on timely outcomes

An effective investigation is efficient and gets things done in a timely manner. Workers will begin to distrust an investigation when several weeks pass between witness interviews and the whole thing drags on for months.

Appoint a team that is motivated and available for the full duration of the investigation. Then commit to delivering an outcome within a reasonable (and realistic) timeframe. The investigation team must also have the scope and authority to actually be involved. Eg, it’s no use appointing a production supervisor to the investigation team and then not allowing them time away from their regular duties to attend meetings.

Next steps

HAZCHEM incident investigations can be a stressful time for workers, but with the right energy and focus, can be perceived as a positive step in the improvement of chemical safety. To learn more about conducting an effective incident investigation that focuses on outcomes and corrective action, download our free eBook Key Steps in a HAZCHEM Incident Investigation. Read it today for the next step in chemical safety and compliance.

Key Steps in a HAZCHEM Incident Investigation


Walter Ingles

Walter Ingles Compliance Specialist

Walter is STOREMASTA’s Dangerous Goods Storage Specialist. He helps organisations reduce risk and improve efficiencies in the storage and management of dangerous goods and hazardous chemicals.

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