Lying during Incident Investigations

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Not too long ago I was involved in an accident investigation on a project at a very well-known international petrochemical company, where an employee from a civil construction company fractured two fingers. Needless to say it resulted in a Lost Time Incident.


Unfortunately, the injured person lied in his statement as well as in the preliminary investigation. Only after the accident had been reconstructed, did he realize that he had been caught out, because what he said happened was physically impossible taking into account the configuration of the equipment at the time of the accident.

It was clear that the injured person was numb with fear when he realized he had been exposed and that he was, more than likely, going to be removed from the project. I must say that I truly had sympathy for this man, but the client’s project manager was adamant that the injured person must be made an “example” of to make sure the message reaches the other workers on site.

Yes… He was wrong to lie… The project HSE specifications clearly stated that willfully supplying false information in any investigation would result in immediate expulsion from the project… I get that…But here is my question;

What would compel a person to lie in an investigation knowing that he would lose his job if he does?

Is the fear of consequences so high that a person would rather lie? Too often are investigations aimed at finding someone to whip and instead of finding the actual root cause! The pressure placed on projects, especially in the large petrochemical organizations, is so high that it has become unbearable! Below are some of the culprits causing this behaviour;

1. Our goal is ZERO HARM

Zero harm makes zero sense!!! Yet workers are bombarded with this statement wherever they turn.

Australian lawyer Andrew Douglas summarises the shortfalls of zero harm from a legal perspective:

  • “It is untrue and neither workers nor supervisors believe the concept is true. Therefore it is unsustainable;
  • The safety knowledge of those most at risk, the workers, is not improved nor is their decision-making capacity. Without changing mindsets, people will continue to make deadly decisions;
  • The language… of zero harm is utterly inaccessible to workers. They need a language in safety they own and understand.”

If the statement of intent was “zero hazards” rather than “zero harm”, an entirely different thought process would take place. Hazards are identifiable and controllable. Everyone at every level in the organisation understands the importance of removing hazards from the workplace. Everyone knows where to focus. The same cannot be said for zero harm.

2. Senior Project management's bonuses are affected if they have serious incidents on their projects.

Is this really the way to go? Surely this is not fair towards the employees on site, nor the project manager who has no control over the employees decision making. At best he can try and influence their decisions through showing commitment to his project's safety drive and to lead the process, but lets face it... the final decision lies with the person operating that machine, working in the excavation or conducting maintenance on that high voltage cabinet which (hopefully) has been locked out and tagged out.

An investigation is a fact-finding and not a fault-finding exercise. It's not about who's wrong and who's right. It's about finding out how it happened, why it happened and what we can do to prevent it from happening again.