Accident and incident investigations: witnesses

Certificate IV in Occupational Health and SafetyA witness is a person who has first hand knowledge of some fact related, directly or indirectly, to an incident.

The first step is to identify and speak to witnesses, initially briefly, to ascertain what information they can contribute to the actual event and the normal procedures that were in place. As each factor is identified, appropriate photographs, samples and sketches should be taken or made, together with a notation of the time this was done.

From this list of witnesses the investigator needs to prioritise the order in which to interview them, taking into account the fragility of their evidence, and commencing with eye witnesses to the event or incident. People who can only advise on the usual work practice or procedure would receive a much lower priority.

The investigator then needs to determine the method of recording what the witness has to say. This will be strongly influenced by the type of investigation being undertaken. If the investigation is being undertaken by a statutory authority, it is highly likely that they will insist on a written, signed statement or a record of interview which is initially taped and then transcribed into a written format. This requirement is necessary to preserve the evidence in a permanent record for reporting to other authorities, and for evidence for legal purposes if deemed necessary. The main advantage of a record of interview that is taped is that you have a verbatim record of what a person said – not what you thought they said.

When taping a record of interview it is important to record on the tape the time the interview starts and finishes and the time any interruptions take place. The reason for recording the time is to have a permanent record of the time it took to record the interview which can be used to prove that nothing has been added to, or deleted from, the recorded interview.

Inquiry agents will also take some written statements, once again for future legal processes if they are commenced.

In other circumstances the investigator may prefer to make notes of what is said, the ultimate objective is to have a written record of all the facts so that a word picture can be prepared of all events leading up to and including the incident, which can then be presented in a report. Evidence that is collaborated can be recorded in confidence. Uncorroborated evidence needs to be treated with caution, although not discounted unless collaborated evidence refutes it.

Apart from an incident victim people rarely observe the full circumstances of an incident and not being trained observers rarely see in detail what they are looking at and even if they do, they cannot remember the detail. The investigator will need to ask appropriate questions in order to obtain relevant answers. The investigator should attempt to gain rapport with the witness. It is a good idea to commence with some general conversation to relax the person and give them confidence in replying to questions, for example, conversation about their own job, their own list of duties and generic questions about the workplace.

The investigator also has to be extremely careful not to influence the witness by the type of questions they ask, any mannerisms they may display, or any reactions to questions that may give the impression of the type of answers they should give.

In the preliminary overview of the incident scene and discussions with potential witnesses, the investigator should be developing a clear picture of the process that was taking place before and leading up to the incident. If any gaps appear in the picture the investigator can then formulate meaningful questions to elicit information from the witnesses.

Whilst an interview is in progress a witness may provide information that has not previously been identified or recorded as part of the process or equipment involved in the incident. It may be necessary, as a result of this new information, to change or add to the questions being asked, and in some cases, re-interview persons who have already been interviewed.

A recorded witness statement, either in writing or electronically, should be considered as a confidential communication between two people, and as such, this confidentiality should be respected. It is perfectly acceptable to use the information gleaned in the interview in any subsequent report, however the copies of the person’s statement should not be given to a third party without firstly obtaining the permission of the witness.

You will learn how to interview witnesses during the unit: Participate in the Investigation of Incidents which is one of nine units that contribute to your Certificate IV in Occupational Health and Safety.