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Course 702 - Effective Accident Investigation

Safety guides and audits to make your job as a safety professional easier

Documenting the Accident Scene

WorkSafeBC - Three Accidents

Document Before it Goes Away...

In this module, we will take a look at strategies for documenting the accident scene. We'll emphasize the team approach and discuss the advantages of using the various documentation methods including, personal observation, photo/videotaping, taking statements, drawing sketches and reviewing records.

The Team Approach Works Best

Once the accident scene has been roped off, it's important to immediately begin gathering evidence from as many sources as possible during an investigation. One of the biggest challenges you'll face as an investigator is to determine what information is relevant. You want to gather data that will help you determine what happened, how it happened, and why it happened. Identifying items which answer these questions is the purpose of documenting the accident scene.

You won't be able to document the scene effectively unless you come prepared, so make sure you have put together an accident investigation kit for use during the investigation. As you'll learn, there are many ways to document the scene, so it may become quite difficult for one person to effectively complete all actions. The most effective strategy is to document as much as possible, even if you don't think the information may not be relevant. It's easy to discard clues or leads later if they prove to not be useful to the investigation. It's not at all easy to dig up material evidence late into the investigation. All items found at the scene should be considered important and potentially relevant material evidence. Consequently, a team approach is probably the most efficient strategy to use when investigating serious accidents.

1. When documenting the scene, one of the biggest challenges facing the investigator is to determine _____.

a. who is to blame
b. what is relevant
c. who is in charge
d. when it happened

Methods to Document the Accident Scene

Let's talk about the various methods you can use to document the accident scene.

Worker on an aerial lift
Note what you see and hear.

Make Personal Observations

With clipboard in hand, take notes on personal observations. Try to involve all of your senses (sight, hearing, smell, etc.).

  • What do you see? What equipment, tools, materials, machines, or structures appear to be broken, damaged, struck or otherwise involved in the event? Look for gouges, scratches, dents, or smears. If vehicles are involved, check for tracks and skid marks. Look for irregularities on surfaces. Are there any fluid spills, stains, contaminated materials or debris?
  • What about the environment? Were there any distractions, adverse conditions caused by weather? Record the time of day, location, lighting conditions, etc. Note the terrain (flat, rough, etc.).
  • What is the activity occurring around the accident scene?
  • Who is there? Who is not? You'll need this information to take initial statements and interviews.
  • Measure distances and positions of anything and everything you believe to be of any value to the investigation.

2. What should you document while making observations of the accident scene?

a. What is and is not present
b. Personal assumptions
c. Who you believe is to blame
d. Feelings expressed
Employee taking a statment from another employee and documenting it
Ask witnesses what happened.

Get Initial Statements

If you are fortunate, there will be one or more eyewitnesses to the accident. Ask them for an initial statement giving a description of the accident. Also try to obtain other information from the witness including:

  • names of other possible witnesses for subsequent interviews;
  • names of company rescuers or emergency response service; and
  • materials, equipment, and articles that may have been moved or disturbed during the rescue.

3. What should eye witnesses to an accident be asked to provide?

a. What form of reprimand is needed
b. Name and position of the supervisor
c. Initial statement of what was seen and heard
d. Who is to blame for the accident

Take Photos of the Accident Scene

Workers taking pictures of an accident scene
Photograph everything!

When taking photos, make sure you start with distance shots, and gradually move in closer as you take the photos. Below are some important points to remember about taking photos.

  • Take photos at different angles (from above, 360 deg. of scene, left, right, rear) to show the relationship of objects and minute and/or transient details such as ends of broken rope, defective tools, drugs, wet areas, or containers.
  • Take panoramic photos to help present the entire scene, top to bottom - side to side.
  • Take notes on each photo. These will be included in the appendix of the report along with the photos. Identify the type of photo, date, time, location, subject, weather conditions, measurements, etc.
  • Place an item of known dimensions in the photo if hard-to-measure objects are being photographed.
  • Identify the person taking the photos.
  • You may want to indicate the locations at which photos were taken on sketches.

4. Each of the following is a best practice when documenting the accident scene with photos, EXCEPT _____.

a. Identify who took the photo
b. Take only close-up photos
c. Take photos with panoramic view
d. Indicate direction of photos

Take Videos of the Scene

Person taking video using their smart phone
Videos will catch things.

There is no requirement to take video. However, with the video capability of digital cameras, it's becoming more common to use this method. If you take video, the earlier you can begin, the better. Once the emergency responders are attending to the victim, begin taking video. The video recorder will pick up details and conversations that can add much valuable information to your investigation. Just remember not to get in the way. Below are some important points to remember when videotaping.

  • Have each witness accompany you and privately describe what happened while taking video.
  • If possible, try to reenact the event.
  • To get the "lay of the land," stand back from a distance and zoom in to the scene.
  • Scan slowly 360 degrees left and right to establish location.
  • Narrate what is being viewed: describe objects, size, direction, and location, etc.
  • If a vehicle was involved, video the direction of travel, going and coming.

Before you take video, make sure your video camera is operating properly, the battery is charged, and, oh yes...take the cap off the lens.

5. When should your safety team start videoing the accident scene?

a. When OSHA is finished investigating
b. As soon as the accident happens
c. Once emergency responders start attending to the victim
d. As soon as investigators get on scene

Sketch the Accident Scene

Sketches are very important because they compliment the information in photos, and are good at indicating distances between the various elements of the accident. This is important to do because it establishes "position evidence." It is important to be as precise as possible when making sketches. Below you will find the basic components of a sketch.

  • Documentation. Date, time, location, identity of objects, victims, etc.
  • Spatial relationships. Measurements.
  • Location of photographs.

Sketches are also valuable because they reconstruct the accident in model form and effectively show movement through time. Sketches also help establish testimony if it becomes necessary to defend against a damage or injury claim. The sketch may also help establish a claim against a supplier or manufacturer.

You don't have to be a professional illustrator to make a decent sketch, but you must be accurate in your measurements. Take a look at the sketch below as a sample of a useful sketch.

gsg photo Overhead sketch of an accident scene
Triangulation Method
(Click to enlarge)
gsg photo Overhead sketch of an accident scene
Be sure to make an accurate sketch.
(Click to enlarge)

The first sketch illustrates the Triangulation Method which makes it possible to later pinpoint the exact location of an object. In this accident, the victim contacted a high voltage line with a metal tree trimming pole. The position of the victim's head is measured from three points. Notice the small circles with horizontal lines through them. These circles indicate where photos were taken. Also, North is indicated and all major objects are identified.

The second sketch illustrates one of the major advantages of sketching. It shows motion through time. In this sketch, you can see the direction the deceased and the bulldozer were traveling shortly before the accident and at the time of the accident.

Some Sketching Pointers

  • Make sketches large; preferably 8" x 10".
  • Make sketches clear. Include information pertinent to the investigation.
  • Include measurements. Establish precise fixed identifiable reference points.
  • Print legibly. All printing should be on the same plane.
  • Indicate directions: N,E,S,W.
  • Always tie measurements to a permanent point, eg. telephone pole, building.
  • Mark where people were standing.
  • Use an arrow to show direction of motion.
  • Use sketches when interviewing people.
  • Show where photos were taken.

6. Which sketching method makes it possible to pinpoint the exact location of an object?

a. Rectangular method
b. Sketching method
c. Square method
d. Triangulation method

Interview Records

Person looking through file cabinet
Records will give you clues.

That's right...you don't just review records, you "interview" them by asking them questions. If you ask...they will answer. Below are some of the records you may want to interview.

  • Maintenance records
  • Training records
  • Standard operating procedures
  • Safety policies, plans, and rules
  • Work schedules
  • Personnel records
  • Disciplinary records
  • Medical records (if permission granted, or otherwise allowed).
  • EMT reports
  • OSHA 300 Log
  • OSHA Form 301, Injury and Illness Incident Report
  • Safety committee minutes
  • Coroner's report
  • Police report

Final Words

Documenting the scene is important for so many reasons. Remember, the team approach works best because accuracy in reconstructing the accident is the final criteria. I think you'll agree that given all the time and money constraints, and complexity of the investigation process, two heads are better than one. Now let's take the quiz.

7. How should you review records during an accident investigation?

a. Ask records questions like an interview
b. Only review the victim's records
c. Don't waste time on non-relevant records
d. Don't make copies of records

Check your Work

Read the material in each section to find the correct answer to each quiz question. After answering all the questions, click on the "Check Quiz Answers" button to grade your quiz and see your score. You will receive a message if you forgot to answer one of the questions. After clicking the button, the questions you missed will be listed below. You can correct any missed questions and check your answers again.

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