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Critical injuries: 9 best practices for interviewing witnesses

Interviewing witnesses

Interviewing witnesses to a critical injury is central to your accident investigation, but they may be experiencing shock, disbelief, emotional numbness and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). How do you show respect for traumatized witnesses, but still uncover the facts you need to file your report with the Ministry of Labour and prevent a similar incident from happening in the future? 

Marianne Matichuk, Principal Consultant for M. Matichuk & Associates*, addressed this question in her recent WSPS Partners in Prevention 2019 Health & Safety Conference & Trade Show session, “Are You Ready? Proactively Addressing Critical Injuries". 

“While interviewing witnesses is an essential step in understanding what went wrong and why — and in preparing your report for the Ministry of Labour — it’s equally important to take care of your employees during this time,” says Marianne. Here’s what she suggests. 

  1. Be prepared for PTSD among witnesses and other employees. Post-traumatic stress symptoms are normal following a critical incident. After the immediate shock, people may suffer from sleep disturbances, flashbacks, withdrawal, anger, fear, anxiety and depression. 
  2. Encourage employees to attend a debrief, led by an outside professional trained in critical incident stress, within 24 to 48 hours of a critical accident. This person would review the incident, discuss the signs and symptoms of PTSD, allow participants to express their feelings and provide resources (such as accessing the employee assistance program or local community resources). 
  3. Involve the worker and management reps of the Joint Health & Safety Committee — who have received accident investigation training — in interviews of eye witnesses, material witnesses and the injured worker, says Marianne. 
  4. Schedule interviews within 24 hours in a neutral, off-site location. If possible, keep witnesses from talking to each other to avoid contamination of information. Encourage employees to attend, but don’t make it mandatory.
  5. Prepare your questions in advance, suggests Marianne. Ask factual questions first then more detailed questions and keep them open ended. 
  6. Expect a range of reactions from witnesses. Interviewing them can be tricky, warns Marianne. They may be apprehensive, uneasy, defensive or suffering the early signs of PTSD. “Be prepared. People may cry, they may yell, or they may cut the interview off short.” 
  7. Remain objective, unbiased and unthreatening. “Don’t go in with preconceived notions or conclusions,” says Marianne. And be sure to create a trusting environment. For example: 
    • be courteous and respectful 
    • show empathy without being emotional 
    • keep it informal — offer a handshake and refreshment and use the person’s first name
    • reassure the witness and explain your purpose 
    • speak in familiar terms 
    • guarantee privacy/confidentiality 
  8. Demonstrate extreme sensitivity when interviewing the injured worker. “Make sure they are well and able to speak to you. Don’t interview the worker in the hospital, only when they are ready. You have to be respectful of the fact that healing takes time.” 
  9. Anticipate resistance or reluctance to speak. An injured worker may refuse to talk for fear of being blamed. “Reassure them that’s not the intent of the interview. If the worker still declines to participate, keep the option open by telling them, “If you ever want to talk, let me know.” 


How WSPS can help

* Now a consultant based in Sudbury, Marianne Matichuk has also served as an environment, health and safety manager, a safety supervisor, mayor of the City of Greater Sudbury and chief administrative officer of the Centre for Research in Occupational Safety & Health;