HEALTH AND SAFETY: Getting at the Root Cause of Accidents
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Health & Safety: Getting at the Root

Shop owners need to ask four questions when recording a workplace incident or accident.


Kyle Holt is the president of S/P2, an online safety and pollution prevention training system for the automotive, heavy-duty/diesel, welding, construction, cosmetology and culinary industries.

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An accident happens in the shop where an employee slips and falls on an area coated in spilled oil. You clean up the oil, send the injured employee to the ER and move on about your day.

The next week, a similar accident happens in the same spot. It’s the busy lunch hour and you’re in a rush, so you quickly sop up the mess and start working down the line of customers. A few days later … well, you see what’s happening here. A similar incident is happening in your shop over and over again, and the rush to get back to the business of the day is taking priority over solving the safety issue.


This exact type of scenario is why OSHA and the EPA urge employers, including shop owners and operators, to go deeper when an accident happens to determine the cause of the accident and how it can be avoided or prevented in the future. It’s called root cause analysis, and it aims to get to the heart of the matter to help prevent a recurring event.


Root Cause Analysis

A root cause analysis enables an employer to discover the underlying or systemic – rather than the “generalized” or “immediate” – causes of an incident. It’s a process designed to help identify not only what and how an event occurred, but also why it happened. Correcting only an immediate cause may eliminate a symptom of a problem but not the problem itself. A successful root cause analysis identifies all of the root causes of a situation.


Conducting a thorough investigation that identifies root causes will help to prevent the same accidents from happening over and over again. As an employer, you can reduce the risk of injury or death to workers and the surrounding community, or environmental harm.

Another advantage of root cause analysis is that you can help lower or eliminate unnecessary costs related to an accident. These can include business interruption, medical care costs, increased insurance premiums, emergency response and cleanup (in the case of a chemical spill or hazardous materials situation), increased regulation, audits and inspections. And, don’t forget OSHA and EPA fines, which can greatly affect your bottom line and reputation.



How It Works

In a root cause analysis, shops can use a four-step process involving data collection (the majority of your time will be spent on finding out what happened), causal factor charting (a diagram that describes the events leading up to the situation, as well as the conditions surrounding the event), root cause identification (identifying the underlying reason or reasons for each causal factor), and recommendation generation and implementation (recommendations for preventing a recurrence).

In addition, OSHA recommends a combination of the following tools depending on the severity of a particular situation: brainstorming, checklists and timelines. In many cases, diagramming can be a helpful component of the process. For example, a logic/event tree is a top-down analysis diagram to help show all of the different relationships that are necessary to result in that top event. Often used in chemical safety, it can be used in any shop scenario where there may be many factors that contributed to a particular event.


Regardless of the methods used, use the following four questions as a basis for recording an incident or accident:

  • What happened?
  • How did it happen?
  • Why did the incident happen?
  • What needs to be corrected?

As a result of a root cause investigation, you may find that a worker or workers need to be retrained and/or reminded of safety procedures, a process needs to be changed, a tool or piece of equipment is faulty, or the shop layout needs to be adapted to reflect current needs or processes. Regardless, this thorough investigation will lead you to a well-informed, specific conclusion that will help you in the future.



Accidents Happen

Although accidents happen in every workplace and many certainly can’t be avoided, it’s important that shop owners and managers recognize their important role in injury prevention. Some accidents are inevitable, and the workplace can carry on without a delay in business.

But many accidents are preventable, and both employees and employers should take the time and effort to get to the bottom of it. By determining the root cause of an accident, you can help prevent a similar accident in the future and keep your employees safe from injury.

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