Five Applied Investigation Skills You Need in Your Toolbox


Safety professional woman conducting applied investigation by interviewing workers at her desk

Investigation skills are an important addition to every safety professional’s toolbox.

Not only can they help you get to the root causes of a problem and prevent future injuries or fatalities, they also allow you to build trust with workers and avoid playing the blame game. But like any other form of detective work, incident investigations will challenge you to shift between many different disciplines.

“All of the work that goes into being a really good investigator starts way before an incident, which I think is the difficulty,” says Anupama Mehrotra, CSP, safety manager with EMCOR Facilities Services. “It’s one thing to be a good listener, but it’s another thing to be able to listen while thinking critically, solving problems and coping with stress.”

That’s why one of the most important steps an emerging professional can take is to assess the tangible and intangible tools they’ll need on the job and then work to acquire them over time. Intangible tools, or soft skills — such as leadership, confidence or communication — may require a lot of time and practice, Mehrotra says, but fortunately there are safety professionals all over the world who are learning the same things.

“Finding a mentor and utilizing your network is key,” she continues. “I learned a lot of what I know about incident investigations from my supervisor during my first safety internship. He let me observe his interactions with workers, which was more valuable than a lot of what I learned in school.”

Are you ready to become the Sherlock of safety? Mehrotra says you’ll need these five essential investigation skills.

1. Empathy

Empathy — or the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes — will go a long way as you work to understand the perspective of each person involved in an incident. Taking an empathetic approach is critical if you want to get to the “true truth” of what happened and how you should respond, Mehrotra says. Otherwise, you risk pointing the finger at individual workers for issues that really are systemic problems.

“I think we all come with our own biases,” she continues, “and those biases can get in the way of how we approach and absorb the experiences of others. But if I go into an investigation, listen empathetically and ask a lot of open-ended questions, I might uncover causes that I didn’t know existed.”

2. Active Listening

If empathy is the antidote to bias, then active listening is the antidote to what often happens as a result of bias: assumptions. When safety professionals make assumptions, even assumptions based on decades of experience and study, it puts everyone on their job site at greater risk. To actively listen, Mehrotra says, you have to get comfortable with silence and avoid interruptions.

“When we ask questions of people, sometimes we try to show them we’re listening or show them we’re smart by finishing their sentences for them,” she says. “But a really important challenge I’d pose to someone conducting an incident investigation is to let the interviewee take as long as they need to answer you without sharing your thoughts in the moment.”

3. Strong Workplace Relationships

Improving safety and health starts with building relationships. Without healthy relationships, and without the trust that they bring, how can you expect workers to accept your guidance day-to-day, or work with you to get to the root cause of a problem? Safety professionals are responsible for reinforcing this trust and respect from their first day on the job to their last.

“It’s something you hear over and over in safety courses and from experienced professionals — build relationships,” Mehrotra says. “But it’s so important to hear that advice, because if you don’t have good relationships with workers before an incident happens, they’re less likely to tell you the whole truth during your investigation.”

4. Self-Awareness

If you’ve ever worked to be a better safety professional, parent, sibling, partner or friend, you know that growth only happens when you take stock of your strengths and weaknesses. You also know that self-awareness is a challenging process, because doing it honestly means acknowledging past mistakes. Mehrotra says case studies can be a useful way to assess the areas in which you need to improve before a real incident occurs, especially in a classroom setting.

“The value of a case study comes when the classroom participant walks through it and asks themselves how they would have responded,” she continues. “Would they have neglected to ask certain people certain questions? Would they have been frustrated by a particular response?”

5. A System or Map

Some safety professionals use a fishbone analysis to conduct incident investigations, which is a visual way of mapping out causes and effects. Some prefer a system called the five whys, in which investigators ask a series of five questions starting with “why,” each following up on the answer to the previous question. These two methods are helpful, especially after incidents involving human factors, but Mehrotra says the mistake some people make is thinking these systems are mutually exclusive.

“I switch around depending on the complexity of the incident,” she says. “If I get through the five whys and that covers everything, then I’ll stick with that. If it’s a larger or more complicated issue, I’ll do the five whys and then follow up with a fishbone diagram.”

The important thing, she adds, is having a consistent and reliable process.

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