Critical accounts: Interviewing witnesses to a workplace incident
Time is of the essence when investigating workplace incidents. Because people remember events with more clarity directly after an incident occurs, it is important to identify and interview witnesses as soon as possible, the National Safety Council states.
When beginning an incident investigation, do not limit your witness pool to only those with firsthand accounts. Perhaps a worker on the shift prior to the incident knows something no one else does about the equipment involved. Or maybe someone noticed something odd before the incident occurred, but dismissed the concern. What may seem unimportant to one person may be vital to an investigation. To help ensure no one pertinent is left out, the council advises asking witnesses to create a list of anyone they saw in the area before the incident took place.
To obtain accurate information from witnesses, NSC recommends a variety of interviewing tips, including:
- Interview witnesses individually. Employees should be interviewed as soon as possible and in private. If a witness talks to or listens to others, he or she may subconsciously change his or her account.
- Interview where the incident took place. Interviewing employees at the site of the incident can help jog their memory, as well as allow them to point out how – and specifically where – something happened.
- Avoid the blame game. Explain to employees that you are interested in uncovering the facts that led to the incident – not who caused it.
- Be a good listener. Allow witnesses to share their story uninterrupted.
- Attain pertinent details. Ask open-ended questions addressing the who, what, where, when, how and why of the incident.
- Be thorough. Take notes when interviewing witnesses and, if you have their permission, record the interviews. If recording, be sure to provide a typed copy of the interview for their review. This allows witnesses to make any necessary corrections.
- Be compassionate. For cases involving a serious workplace incident, such as a death or traumatic injury, use discretion when interviewing witnesses. Some employees may be in shock or unable to talk about what they saw. In these cases, it may be best to postpone interviews to allow for emotional recovery.
- Use the interview as an opportunity to improve. Solicit ideas from witnesses about how to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future. This shows your employees that their voices matter.