Assuming you have adequately prepared for conducting incident investigation interviews (see "The Art of Interviewing, Part 1: Preparation" in the January/ February 2007 issue of Incident Prevention), a primary objective for live interviews is to help interviewees reveal the deeper reasons why the incident occurred. The evidence you collect will tell you what happened. In other words, you don't just ask what happened, you interview the people involved to find out why things happened.

The following tips can help successful incident investigation interviews:

This is the most important tip for interviewers. The person must feel comfortable with the setting and with you as an interviewer if you expect them to reveal useful information. The interviewee must understand that the interview is not designed to lead to punishment; it is intended to help uncover root causes. Start by having some amount of normal conversation—ask how are you, how are your kids, did you see the game last night? Ask if the interviewee is comfortable with the chair, the temperature in the room, or if he/she needs a drink. After some brief conversation, describe how the interview will be conducted and your expectations. Then ask if the interviewee has any questions.

Your active listening skills will significantly affect the outcome of the interview. Active listening involves actions like being attentive, paraphrasing back key points, maintaining eye contact, leaning forward toward the speaker, and exhibiting body language that demonstrates you care about what the person is saying. It is essential that you are communicating to the interviewee that you care about him/her as a person and you value what he/she is saying. 

Since I already have information about what happened, I prefer to have the interviewee begin telling his/her story starting earlier in the day. You may want them to start at the beginning of the shift, or at least several hours before the incident occurred. This practice yields several benefits. You get the person comfortable talking. The interviewee may share information about something that occurred earlier that contributed to the incident.
By talking about earlier parts of the day, you also get a sense of the person's speech, flow, mannerisms, and so on. This becomes important as a point of comparison when the interviewee starts talking about the incident. If the inter- viewee changes from his/her normal speaking rhythm, you need to note the process step where that occurred. These changes indicate a point of stress and may indicate that the interviewee is not providing all the information. 

You may be tempted to jump right into your list of questions. Restrain yourself! One way to put the person at ease is to hear his/her story all the way through without interruption. Be attentive and take notes while maintaining eye contact and demonstrating interest. You should already know how the task should have occurred and you will be able to identify deviations from expected performance. The abnormal changes in speaking also tip you on key points. After the person has provided his/her account, then go back for more in-depth discussion of key points. 

This is the most important step to revealing real root causes, the deeper reasons why the incident occurred. From the earlier steps, you know when in the sequence of events the interviewee's actions deviated from expectations (or requirements) and the points where they were uncomfortable. Have the interviewee repeat his/her account of each of those points, then start your why questioning without being accusatory. Why did you do it that way? Why were you thinking that? How often have you done that particular action? If the interviewee seems to be getting nervous or uncomfortable, reassure him/her that these questions are intended to help understand the real reasons why the event occurred and, with this knowledge, to prevent the same and similar incidents from happening to anyone else. 

The interviewee may know other valuable information about the incident. End each interview by summarizing what you heard, the person's key points, and then an open-ended question like "Is there anything else about this situation or incident that we did not cover that you think is important?"
With practice, utility safety professionals can become very effective interviewers. The tips and suggestions in this two-part series should help you reveal deeper reasons for events, which should increase your ability to prevent future incidents. ip

Dr. Tyrone Tonkinson, President – Simple Approach, Inc., has more than 20 years of electric utility experience and is a recognized expert in root cause analysis, human performance, and organizational assessment. For more information, visit