Most employers have a procedure for investigating accidents in the workplace. This procedure sets out the roles of those involved in the investigation and provides relevant forms. Following the procedure should result in a determination of the root and direct causes of the accident, as well as the appropriate corrective action required in order to prevent a recurrence.

However, less likely to be investigated are near misses that may have gone unreported because of the workplace culture or because they were not viewed as important. In the same way that chest pains can be a sign of a serious health condition, a near miss in the workplace can be a warning that something is amiss.

Accidents and their causes have been studied since 1919. An early theory, that of 'accident proneness', suggested that accidents occur because certain types of person are prone to them. In 1931 one researcher determined that for every major injury, 29 minor injuries and 300 near misses had occurred. In 1969 Frank E Bird Jr, a director of engineering services for the Insurance Co of America, analysed approximately 1.8 million accidents from 21 different industries. He determined that 600 near misses had resulted in one fatality. He theorised that while major injuries were rare events, they could often be avoided by taking action after the more frequent and less serious near misses.

When investigating a workplace incident (eg, an injury or an environmental spill), the investigation procedure should include an investigation of related near misses. Such an investigation often uncovers hazards that may have been overlooked by initial review and inspection, as well as determining the root and direct causes – for example, whether the near miss was a result of an unsafe condition, an unsafe act or an unsafe process. Similarly, investigating a near miss may reveal that enforcement of the work procedure is lacking or that scheduled preventive maintenance of equipment has not been carried out. Flagging weaknesses in the occupational health and safety management system because of a near miss can help employers to strengthen their procedures and improve their due diligence.

While it may seem that investigating a near miss is not worth the time and energy, in the long run, it is likely to uncover unknown hazards or conditions which may result in a serious injury or fatality. The time and energy spent investigating a near miss are trivial compared to the time, energy and emotional stress of investigating a more serious incident.

This article was first published by the International Law Office, a premium online legal update service for major companies and law firms worldwide. Register for a free subscription.

For further information on this topic please contact Carla Oliver at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP by telephone (+1 403 837 0610) or email ( The Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP website can be accessed at