I have been saddened yet, in a strange way, privileged to have been given the responsibility to investigate many fatal and life-changing incidents over the years. Through my experiences, I've discovered a recurring theme that underscores the importance of proactive measures to prevent regrettable outcomes.

Almost always, at some point during these investigations, I will hear two little words: 'If only'.  

Recognising 'If Only' Moments in Incident Investigation

In a previous life investigating serious crimes, including murder, 'if only' scenarios were common. If only he had taken a different route home…if only she hadn't gone out that evening… if only we had taken a taxi…Of course, in most cases, such decisions leading to life-threatening situations could not have been foreseen and thus prevented. We tend to attribute these occurrences to fate, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

That said, we will all have read or seen examples of high-profile crimes where foreseeable and earlier intervention by the authorities could have prevented the offender from encountering their victim. Thankfully, however, this 'if only' scenario is rare.

Conversely and more common in the context of workplace life-threatening situations, most 'if only' moments were less so fate but more so foreseeable and, dare I say, preventable... If only I had followed my instinct and stopped the job… if only we had listened to the guys' feedback and improved equipment or processes…if only we had implemented that preventive action at the time as opposed to deferring until next year… I could go on and on.…

The lesson here is that these reflections could have led to significant changes in workplace safety protocols and prevented incidents.

When an incident occurs, you can be almost certain it will have been signposted by precursors. Such warning signs or red flags may arise from audit non-conformances, front-line worker feedback/observations or, indeed, previous incident findings.

Understanding the Significance of Preventive Actions in Workplace Safety

The paradox of preventive actions is that their success lies in the uncertainty of what harm they prevent in the future. When an opportunity to improve is overlooked, bypassed, or deferred for another day or budget line and subsequently becomes causal or contributory in a serious incident, the consequences of failing to act can become painfully obvious, haunting organisations forever.

Far too often, I have fed back the results of a heart-breaking investigation to leadership teams where the realisation dawns that preventing what has happened had been in their gift.

One of the most valuable lessons from working with different investigation teams is recognising the importance of taking proactive measures. The next time you meet with your team, formally or informally, why not take 5 minutes to flush out any 'if only' niggles sitting out there and take my word, act now to avoid regrets later. Don't find yourself regretting 'If only' I had heeded that guy Alan Smith's blog!