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Investigating falls from height

Our health & safety advisor and ex-HSE inspector, Ray Cooke, stresses the importance of learning the necessary lessons in the aftermath of an accident. “It’s not just a moral argument, it makes sound business sense too,” says Ray.

Written by Ray Cooke, Health & Safety Advisor at No Falls Foundation

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Should you ever find yourself in the unfortunate situation that one of your workers has an accident at work then it is critical that you properly investigate what happened and why, so you can learn necessary lessons to prevent any further incident. 

This isn’t just a moral argument; it makes very sound business sense too. Accidents cost money, whether that’s in compensation, increased insurance premiums, cost of rectifying damage, regulatory investigation and enforcement, reputational damage and consequent loss of business, or whatever.

And please do not think your insurance policy covers all this. Past HSE research suggested for every £1 you got back from your insurance company, there was anywhere between £8 – 36 uninsured cost. That might be the difference between staying in business or going under.  

Carrying out your own health and safety investigations will provide you with a deeper understanding of the risks associated with your work activities. Blaming individuals is ultimately fruitless and sustains the myth that accidents are unavoidable when the opposite is true.

Unfortunately, when an incident occurs too many are blinded by immediate causes. For example, “we gave him the training, but he ignored it”. To dig deeper and really establish the root cause you need to find out why the training was ignored. Were they trained but then not given the right equipment; or were there inadequate maintenance systems in place for correctly selected equipment; or had any custom and practice developed amongst the workforce or supervisors such that training was ignored; was the training just a ‘bums on seats’ exercise without actually checking those attending actually understood and could apply what they were being taught? 

I appreciate that for smaller businesses investigation might be something they’ve never had to do before or very infrequently, but don’t worry as there is plenty of guidance out there to help. HSE has published a very helpful workbook aimed at employers, unions, safety representatives and safety professionals – HSG 245 Investigating accidents and incidents (available free to download at www.hse.gov.uk).

An effective investigation requires a methodical, structured approach to information gathering, collation and analysis and the workbook sets out a straightforward 4-stage process to help you achieve this. The findings of the investigation should then form the basis of your action plan to prevent the accident or incident from happening again and for improving your overall management of risk. Your findings will also point to areas of your risk assessments that need to be reviewed.

It can be quite uncomfortable for an employer to look at themselves in this way but if you do not and don’t learn necessary lessons then you risk incidents occurring again and again. Indeed, how can anyone claim they are really running and managing their business if they do not properly investigate and learn lessons?

As an ex-HSE Inspector I should point out that once the HSE are involved in an accident investigation they will be looking at underlying and root causes. It’s far better to do so yourselves, learn lessons, implement improvements and avoid further incidents. 

Ray Cooke

Ray Cooke

Ray recently retired after 35 years with the Health and Safety Executive, finishing his career as Principal Inspector in charge of the construction division’s sector safety team. He's now Health & Safety Advisor for No Falls Foundation.

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