Running a transparent HAZCHEM incident investigation

Apr 26, 2019 Posted by Walter Ingles

When investigating HAZCHEM incidents you want your workers to co-operate fully so you can quickly find out what happened and then implement safety measures to ensure the incident never happens again. This blog is about running a transparent incident investigation without compromising the integrity of injured workers or the security of the job site. A transparent process builds trust with your workers and encourages everyone to participate in improving onsite safety.  

REAL WORLD EXAMPLE: A worker was draining a 45,000 litre tank of caustic soda; the tank was made of concrete and stood more than 3 metres high.The worker entered the tank wearing only goggles as PPE, and used a wrench to remove the plug from the bottom of the tank. Caustic soda immediately rushed out of the  opening, splashing the worker and penetrating their protective goggles. Unable to see, the worker had to radio for help getting out of the tank and using the emergency eyewash and shower. This delay worsened the injuries and the worker was left with corneal burns and vision impairment.

Imagine now you want to investigate this HAZCHEM incident. This is exactly the type of incident that could cause a great deal of contention in the workplace. How could a worker be at the bottom of a 3 metre tank of caustic soda on their own — and only using a set of common goggles as PPE? In our blog we’ll be identifying 4 key considerations for running a transparent investigation into the incident.

1. Appoint a balanced team

A transparent incident investigation begins by appointing a well-balanced team with representatives from all areas of the business — including the area where the incident occurred. Inviting workers and supervisors from different departments creates a sense of involvement and an opportunity to open the lines of communication between management and operational staff.

At the same time, a group can offer a wider range of skills than a single manager, and (in this example) bring a mix of WHS investigation skills, as well as a working knowledge of the operating procedures in and around the caustic soda tanks. To get to the root causes of this incident you’ll need someone on the team who knows how chemical safety is managed on a day-to-day basis.

2. Be clear about your intentions

Once you’ve appointed your team you’ll want a clear agenda so that everyone involved in the HAZCHEM investigation knows what they are doing, and why they are doing it. Assign clear responsibilities to each member and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to act in their full capacity. For example: appointing a worker from the chemical storage area to the team, but then holding all the meetings at times when they cannot attend will quickly negate any of your efforts at transparency.

IMPORTANT: Ensure that everyone understands their obligations to confidentiality. Operational staff should be briefed about what they can talk about to their co-workers and the elements of the investigation that must remain confidential.

3. Publicise a timetable for the investigation

Be clear from the outset that the purpose of the investigation is to understand the contributing factors which led to the incident and then find ways to introduce safer working procedures. Senior Management could present a brief at a full site meeting and then issue updates as the investigation progresses.

These actions are not about publicising every detail of the investigation but outlining your intentions. Here’s a possibility:

An incident occurred on 25 December 2018 at our worksite where a member of our staff was seriously injured. Three other workers, though not injured were placed at serious risk, and we are concerned about a breakdown in safety procedures.

An investigation team has been appointed to look more closely at this incident, as well as our current procedures for chemical safety, and the suitability of the PPE we use onsite. We ask that you assist our investigators by answering their questions truthfully and providing further information if requested.

As the investigation progresses we will keep you updated about the findings, and any changes we may introduce to improve safety at our workplace. Onsite chemical safety is a shared responsibility and we look forward to your ongoing co-operation and involvement.

Your brief might also include some key dates as well as an ongoing contact person (usually the onsite HSE Manager). Remember also that once you’ve publicised your brief you need to follow through on your promises.

4. Share key findings

A transparent incident investigation is wrapped up with a report that outlines the root causes of the incident and recommends corrective actions. Some of this information can be shared with your workers. You might consider the following:

Things to include

  • Positive outcomes. Eg, we are recalling all PPE and issuing new chemical resistant goggles that meet a higher safety standard. 
  • Changes to operations: Eg, over the next three weeks we will be rolling out changes to our operating procedures when conducting maintenance on the chemical storage tanks. In brief these will include the introduction of a buddy system and a 3 hour site lockdown.

Things to leave out:

  • Personal details about the health of workers. Eg, Joe is now permanently blind.
  • Blame orientated information. Eg, if Joe had been wearing a proper face shield he would not have been injured. 

Next steps

Running a transparent HAZCHEM incident investigation encourages your workers to actively participate in the investigation, and without their help it’s unlikely you’ll gain a full understanding of what happened. For a more detailed guide to running your own incident investigation, why not download our free eBook Key steps in a HAZCHEM incident investigation? We outline the investigation process using real-world  examples which you can apply to your own business. Download and read it today by clicking on the image below:

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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