Witnesses are often critical to work injury investigations. Here’s what to do to protect yourself and others if you witness a workplace accident.
An estimated 2.4 million employees sustain work-related injuries requiring emergency treatment annually.¹
The frequency of work accidents means many employees will witness someone getting hurt at work. If you see a coworker injured on the job, there are important steps you can take to help protect the safety of the injured employee and others.
Ethical employers expect witnesses to truthfully describe what they saw, without fear of reprisal. Witnesses to on-the-job accidents have an obligation to tell the truth about what they saw. If your employer is pressuring you to change your story, you have the right to protection under the law.
Some workplace accidents are so disturbing that the witness sustains psychological injuries. If you need mental health care after witnessing a serious workplace accident, you may be covered by workers’ comp.
What To Do When You See a Workplace Injury
The most important thing a person should do upon seeing an injury at work is to remain calm. There are several immediate actions you can take to help preserve workplace safety.
Takes these steps after witnessing a work accident:
- Render first aid to the injured worker and/or call 911
- Shut down any dangerous equipment or machinery if you safely can
- Try not to move or clean anything at the scene of the accident (investigators will want to see everything you saw)
- Report the accident to your employer (e.g., a manager, supervisor, or member of Human Resources)
- After securing help for the injured employee, take notes on what you witnessed
It’s a good idea to write down what you saw happen while the sequence of events is fresh in your mind.
Witnesses Have Rights
Sometimes employers will try to coerce a witness into blaming an accident on the injured employee. This kind of intimidation is against the law.
Accident witnesses have the right to report work accidents without worrying about getting fired, demoted, or suffering from any other retaliation from their employer.
If you meet with an accident investigator, you also have the right to attend the meeting without your supervisor present. Union members can usually provide a written statement without answering direct questions about the incident.
If you witnessed a work accident and believe your rights are in jeopardy, contact your union representative or a workers’ compensation law firm for help. A workers’ compensation lawyer can help protect your rights and your employment.
Importance of a Work Accident Witness
Helping an injured coworker may very well save the injured worker’s life or limb. Just as important is the witness’ contribution to safety.
When the employer conducts an investigation, a witness statement can help change company policies, which can lead to a safer work environment.
Consider, for example, the scenario where a worker slips and falls while loading a truck. If another worker saw the incident and noticed oil leaking from under the vehicle, the employer may demand immediate maintenance for all work trucks. This maintenance could help prevent similar accidents from taking place in the future.
Helping Resolve Workers’ Compensation Claims
Work accident witnesses can help determine whether an injured employee can collect workers’ compensation benefits.
After a work accident, injured workers can file a workers’ comp claim with their employer’s insurance company.
Workers’ compensation is a no-fault insurance program, meaning a worker does not have to prove that an employer’s negligence caused or contributed to an injury. Workers only have to show that they were injured while on the job and performing work-related duties.
Witnesses can weigh in favor of either injured workers or their employers. A witness can help an accident victim secure workers’ comp benefits by attesting that the worker was in fact injured on the job.
On the other hand, witnesses can help employers weed out false or fraudulent claims. For example, if they saw a coworker arrive at work with a noticeable injury, or witnessed the coworker using illicit drugs or alcohol on the job.
Securing Workers’ Comp Benefits Without a Witness
You can still qualify for workers’ comp benefits if a witness did not see your work accident. Seek prompt medical attention and report the injury to your employer as soon as possible after the incident.
Provide as many details as you can about when, where, and how you were injured when speaking with your medical providers and filing your workers’ compensation claim.
Giving Witness Statements and Testimony
Employers, insurers, and injured workers may ask witnesses for their account of what happened.
Witnesses are typically asked to give a statement immediately after an accident, during the investigation of a workers’ comp claim, or during a workers’ comp appeal.
Providing a Written Witness Statement
Sometimes employers will provide an incident report for a witness to complete. The witness fills out basic information about the event (e.g., date, time, location) and then writes a narrative explaining what they saw. In other cases, a witness may have to draft a statement on their own.
An effective witness statement includes:
- The date, time of day, and location of the accident
- An explanation of what the witness saw
- A description of the accident victim’s injuries
- What the witness did immediately after the accident (e.g., provide first aid or call 911)
If you made some notes soon after witnessing the accident, refer to your notes when drafting your statement. Confine your statement to the facts of the case. Avoid offering opinions or conclusions about the root causes of the accident or the severity of the victim’s injuries.
Giving In-Person Witness Testimony
Employers or claimants (or their attorneys) usually request witness testimony when an insurer has denied a worker’s comp claim, or there are questions of liability outside of the workers’ compensation process.
For example, there may be a governmental investigation after a severe industrial accident, or a product liability lawsuit against a machine manufacturer.
Either the employer or the injured worker can request a witness’ testimony.
If you testify, the party requesting your testimony will ask you questions. These are usually open-ended questions allowing you to answer freely about what you saw. An example of an open-ended question is: “What happened to the victim next?”
The opposing party then has the right to ask rebuttal questions. These are usually leading questions that call for a “yes” or “no” response. An example of a leading question is: “The ladder actually blocked your view of the accident, isn’t that correct?”
No matter who is asking the questions, be honest. If you don’t know an answer, it’s okay to say you don’t know. Stay calm and if you forget some details, you can usually ask for a document to refresh your memory.
Emotional Harm from Witnessing Severe Injuries
The psychological effects of witnessing serious injuries or fatalities are real and difficult to endure. Even trained first responders often need help coping with the aftermath of traumatic harm to others.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), witnesses to severe traumatic injuries may experience critical incident stress.
Symptoms of critical incident stress include:
- Chest pain
- Poor concentration
- Chronic Anxiety
- Increased alcohol consumption
If you’re experiencing signs of critical incident stress or having difficulty coping after witnessing a severe work injury, speak with someone in your support system, a counselor, psychologist, or other mental health professional.
Some employers offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) where employees can speak with professionals about their emotional reactions interfering with their personal and professional lives. Contact your Human Resources department to learn more about EAP assistance.
Psychological workplace injuries are real and can vary in severity from a few bad dreams to full-blown PTSD. If you are temorarily or permentanty disabled by the effects of witnessing a shocking and severe workplace accident, your injury claim may be covered by your employer’s workers’ compensation insurance.
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