Preventing Occupational Accidents in Europe
Around 5 million employees per year are estimated to suffer from work-related accidents involving ‘over-3-day’ absence from work, and a further 5,500 are killed in the European Union (EU). [1. The average estimated number of fatal occupational accidents was 350,000 and there were 264 million non-fatal accidents in 1998, according to the International Labor Organisation (ILO).  Given the magnitude of the problem, well-designed prevention strategies are needed. Accident investigation stands as a significant way to prevent occupational accidents because it clarifies accident causation factors and mechanisms.
Unfortunately, in the EU, the official accident investigation practices and methods vary between countries and even within the same country, and a formal documented structural procedure is absent.  Of all of the EU member states, the central authorities of the Nordic countries provide Labor Inspectorss with books or manuals on how the investigation should be performed in the country’s own language. Austria, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have guidelines (although they are not regarded as formal methods), but Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Greece are examples of countries where a written guidance does not exist.
In Greece, the appropriate body for the official investigation of accidents is the Labor Inspectorate. If an accident occurs, Health and Safety Legislation (L. 1568/85, P.D. 17/96) requires the employer to report it within 24 hours to the appropriate Centre of Prevention of Occupational Risk. Upon receiving the employer's report, one or two Labor Inspectors (LIs) carry out an investigation in the accident workplace. Basing it on the accident conditions and testimony of the witnesses, they write a formal accident investigation report, which they transmit to the appropriate police department.
Due to the absence of a formal documented procedure or structure (method/technique) that guides the investigation, LIs usually use their knowledge, experience, and prior observation, as well as their assessment of the competence and commitment of management, during the accident investigation process.  In other words, in the absence of concrete guidance, many LIs are forced to devise their own personalized methods and interpretations. There will always be a place for intuition from the investigators, but it would be desirable to have a formal method that could be applied by all investigators. Besides, such formal methods should enable underlying causes to be discovered as soon as possible.
Hallmarks of the Ideal Investigation Method
The ideal accident investigation method should fulfill five main requirements.  These are: descriptive, causal, legal, prevention, and research. Descriptive and causal requirements comprise the description of events and circumstances surrounding the accident and identification of probable accident causes, respectively. The legal requirement stands for the satisfaction of legal requirements, documentation of any health and safety legislation violations, and sorting out legal liabilities. The prevention requirement is the attempt to recommend what changes could be made that would decrease the probability of a similar accident in the future, and the research requirement is to gather accident information for use in accident research and prevention programs.
Despite the availability of accident investigation methods based on modern accident causation theories, none of them is especially designed for LIs becaues they do not fulfill the legal requirement.  On the other hand, designing an accident investigation method that focuses on legal aspects constitutes a weakness of LIs' position. Concentrating on legal aspects leads to overlooking other important contributing or latent factors, such as organizational and management conditions.
The occupational accident investigation should go deeper into identifying underlying workplace and organizational factors and establish their interrelationships.  When performing an accident investigation, LIs should take into account physical and engineering hazards, human factors, and management factors and then try to identify their relation to legal violations. MILI, which stands for Method of Investigation by Labor Inspectors, already has been presented as a first attempt to incorporate labor inspectors' requirements into accident investigation methods. 
A structured accident investigation method such as MILI that is based on a combination of model/method pairs  would fulfill the requirements of an ideal accident investigation method. Only after analyzing the accident would LIs be able to determine legal breaches and fulfill the legal requirement. The identification of the specific regulations, strictly from the legal point of view, must be the result of the investigation rather than its starting point. A structured accident investigation method, especially one designed for LIs, also would fulfill the research requirement by supporting the decisions and planning of the relevant Ministry of Labor in terms of policymaking, prioritization of actions, campaigns, and accident prevention programs.
1. European Agency for Safety and Health at Work -- OSHA (2002), "New tools to improve occupational safety and health and to increase the competitiveness of your business," Press release on 10-09-2002 (available at: http://agency.osha.eu.int/news/press_releases/en/10_09_2002/index.htm).
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This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.