Without exception and across the globe, every workplace in your professional career is likely to apply considerable value to safety, health, and security of the business and all of its assets. In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) is the regulating and enforcement entity whose mission is “to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance” (https://www.osha.gov/aboutosha, n.d.). The importance of record keeping in the areas of safety and health cannot be overstated; and all employees are responsible for some level of preparing safety documentation. This chapter aims to provide you with tools for success in writing a workplace-specific genre: the incident report.
Think about your own experiences, at work or in another capacity. What training have you completed related to safety, security, or health? Why do you think the organization provided the training? How did you benefit from being trained? How did the organization benefit? Be prepared to discuss your experience in class.
Preparing to write an incident report
Employers often include training on their company safety program as part of new employee orientation: as a result, as you begin or continue your professional career, you will become familiar with your company’s requirements and your responsibilities for documentation of accidents and other reportable incidents. This section provides information about typical company procedures you may encounter.
Before anything happens
Information collection procedures should be provided in the workplace safety and health plan handbook or other document, and may be accompanied by one or more forms designed to capture all initial information about the incident. Always be familiar with the incident reporting procedures required by your employer so you are prepared to address your responsibility in clear, complete, concise, and correct documentation.
After something happens
First, in the event you are involved in or witness an accident or other event that is outside the normal and expected course of business while in the workplace, be prepared to collect and recall detailed information according to a plan specified by your employer. It may be critical to make observations, ask questions, write information down, make sketches, and take photographs as soon as safely possible following any emergency procedures. Familiarity with the employer’s safety protocols ensures you can minimize further risk to individuals and to the company.
Collecting important data
Perhaps your career will provide opportunities for you to conduct in-depth investigations for your employer, and you may prepare lengthy, detailed investigation reports addressing things like root causes and policy changes. Regardless of his or her position within the company, however, each employee has a responsibility to work safely and to report incidents or unsafe conditions. As noted above, many times the latter level of reporting amounts to completing one or more specialized forms similar to the one provided in Figure 1 below. Review the example form and be prepared to discuss it with your peers in class.
Figure 1. Partial initial incident report information collection form (Sandvick, 2020)
The facts about an incident are collected in the form shown in Figure 1 using reporters’ questions: that is, those questions that elicit what, where, when, who, how, and why information. Additionally, certain incident types require visual media representation of details. Working with a classmate, discuss a parking lot collision or other incident involving at least one driver and vehicle. Besides answering the questions provided in Figure 1, what other kinds of visual information could you collect and provide to help readers understand the incident?
In the event your organization does not have a readily-available data collection form to use, the reporters’ questions may provide sufficient guidance for you to collect incident details. In any case, the two important goals to meet in preparing to write an incident report are as follows:
- Collect the facts about and observations of the incident as soon as is safely possible, distinguishing between your own observations and those relayed to you by other witnesses; and
- Create any photographs, diagrams, and other visual data as soon as it is safe to do so.
Organizing and drafting an internal incident report
Your organization’s policies and procedures, together with your position, will determine the next steps you should take in the incident reporting process. As an intern or junior-level professional, your responsibility may end with completion and submission of the reporting form(s). If you have management or executive authority, you are more likely to be tasked with writing a complete narrative incident report. Finally, if you have primary responsibility for health, safety, and/or security within your workplace – perhaps you are a safety coordinator – you may need to collect the initial witness report forms; conduct complete investigations; prepare one or more formal narrative reports; make training or disciplinary decisions; recommend policy changes; and prepare official reports for state and federal authorities.
Understand that the specific requirements of your employer may be unique to your business and to the type of workplace incident being reported. Table 1 below contains questions you must answer in the drafting process: discuss the scope of and reasons for those questions.
Table 1. Considerations for organizing and drafting your report
|Who?||Who is the audience for your report? Who was involved in the incident? Who are the witnesses?||Keep in mind you may be writing a memo to your supervisor, who may elevate the memo up his or her chain of command or outside the organization. Non-employee witnesses might not cooperate later, so get their information at the scene of the incident right away if you can.
|What?||What happened? What steps were taken before, during and after the incident? What injuries or property damage occurred?||Provide facts only in this detail: avoid writing anyone’s suspicions, judgments, opinions, or assessments of actions or conditions. Provide only objective observations in the report. Write as complete an account as possible.
|When?||What date and time did the incident occur? When did related activity at the site end?||Consider writing internal report memos with a series of statements in the narrative indicating the approximate time events took place. This method should be used only if the writer has confidence that recorded times are accurate.
|Where?||Where did the incident happen? What is the address or mile marker number? What are the GPS coordinates of the location?||Be as specific as possible in describing the location and include maps, aerial photos, and floor plans when relevant and helpful. Details of weather should be noted if the incident occurred outdoors. Discuss lighting and other environmental conditions if significant.
|Why?||What reasons were given by the parties involved for any actions taken or other behaviors or decisions?||Many people may offer their theories about what happened and why: be very careful to include only first-hand statements from witnesses with direct knowledge of the events. Do not include theories, suspicions, or speculation by yourself or others in the incident report.
|How?||How was the location accessed? How were safety protocols followed? How are you expected to report?||Draft your narrative report in a memo format unless another form is required. Confirm whether you are responsible for recommending discipline and policy changes: do not overstep employer expectations.
A word about preparing external incident reports
As noted in the introduction, OSHA may have regulatory authority over your employer. In that event, you may be required to report the details of a workplace accident or other incident according to the specifications of OSHA and in a format they prescribe. As you review Figure 2, notice the information required by the report form. How does it compare to the information provided in a typical internal incident report as represented in the previous section of this chapter? What can you tell about OSHA’s priorities from its reporting form?
Finalizing internal incident reports
Organizing your effort, taking stock of your progress through the reporting process and reorganizing your information is a constant in incident reporting. At this point, you should be able to check off the following steps:
- Ensure you have collected all relevant answers to the reporters’ questions from both your own point of view and that of others involved in or witnessing the incident.
- Confirm you have taken photos and created or obtained drawings as needed to fully and clearly explain the sequence of events and extent of damage.
- Obtain copies of any other documentation (police reports, for example) or artifacts from the scene of the incident that will accompany your internal report.
Draft your report using the format prescribed by your employer or, if no specifics are given, use a standard business memorandum format. Keep in mind both the intended audience and the potential readers as you write; and remember that your purpose is to objectively report the facts and details of the incident in a clear, concise, complete, correct, and usable document.
Incident reports are a workplace-specific genre of writing that generally appear in report memo format. Like all forms of technical writing, incident reports succeed when they are clear, complete, concise, and correct. This genre is frequently written for one audience who then may disseminate it to a much broader audience. The challenges of incident reporting include careful organizing, integrating graphics, and especially reporting facts and observations objectively and completely without addressing the author’s opinions or judgments. Just (all) the facts, please.
Activity: A case study
Read and discuss the following scenario with your classmates as directed by your instructor.
Carolyn has 3 semesters left to complete her bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering. Last summer, she was hired as a field sampling technician for a growing environmental engineering firm. Her employer specializes in groundwater remediation.
Carolyn’s training in the first week of her internship included the following topics:
- Safe operation of company and worksite vehicles, both at the office and in the field
- Use and care of personal protective equipment
- Handling, marking, and disposal of samples, equipment, and supplies
- Completing daily work logs and weekly progress reports
Protocols for reporting accidents and near misses
Carolyn also learned from the junior-level project engineers who trained her that interns and new hires typically are expected to do most of the paperwork.
On Wednesday of the second week of her internship, Carolyn had an opportunity to test her skills at collecting and reporting information about an accident involving damage to company property. Joey, a project engineer who oversaw Carolyn’s training on the sampling process, was driving a company pickup from the office to the field worksite.
- The truck assigned that day to Joey and Carolyn had been parked front-end first in the fleet yard, which violated the safe operation and parking rules of the company.
- Joey noticed there were no chocks at the wheels of the truck. Since he didn’t need to remove any chocks, he did not complete a walk-around of the vehicle.
- Carolyn climbed into the passenger side of the truck and fastened her seat belt.
- Since the parking spot was positioned against the building, preventing him from pulling through, Joey backed out.
Joey backed the truck out of the parking spot and collided with a cement barrier. The collision broke the taillight cover on the truck’s passenger side and dented the bumper. There was also damage to the paint on the truck’s tailgate.
Answer the questions and be prepared to discuss your answers in class.
- Consider the audience, which may include safety officers; business owners; direct supervisors; medical personnel; and insurance and legal agents. What needs do all members of this audience have in common?
- Carolyn is an intern and is just starting her work at the company. She doesn’t want to become known as “a troublemaker” among her peers. What should she include in her witness account of the incident report? What should she avoid in the report? Why?
- Would you advise Carolyn to include any photographs in her incident report? If so, what should she photograph? If not, why not?
Refer to Figure 3 below as you complete the homework.
Instructions for Employees: Making an Initial Property Damage Incident Report
Report as soon as possible within 4 hours of the incident via email addressed to Safety@Company.com.
- Subject line of email: “MM/DD/YYYY Property Damage Notification.”
- Include the following information in the body of the email:
- Names of employees present, whether involved or possible witnesses
- Organization unit, office phone and cell phone numbers of employee making report
- Time, weather, and site address and description of incident location
- Describe the work being performed and the equipment and/or other property damage
- Attach pictures of the location and damaged area(s) of equipment.
- CC the unit supervisor and all other employees present at the time of the incident.
Developmental writing assignment
Work together with a partner to agree on the details of the incident to be reported. You will need to make decisions about any details not provided in the scenario but required by the reporting instructions: for example, you will need to decide on a date and time of day for the incident. What other assumptions do you make?
Why do you think the instructions require a report within 4 hours and submitted via email?
Technical writing document creation assignment
Write and submit the employer-required incident report email for the accident identified in the Activity section above.
Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (2004). OSHA forms for recording work-related injuries and illnesses. Retrieved from OSHA.gov website: https://www.osha.gov/recordkeeping/RKforms.html