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Using a Cognitive Interview Technique for Safety Incidents
Stop interrogating workers!
Guest contributors: BlaineJHoffmann
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Workplace incidents are never something that employers and employees look forward to experiencing. However, they do happen, and it's important for everyone involved to understand what happened and how it happened, which will require you to interview those involved in the incident. So it stands to reason you will want to ask the right questions correctly to elicit the most accurate information possible. A cognitive interview technique is one of the most effective ways to do this.

In this article, we'll discuss how cognitive interviews work and why they're helpful for workplace incidents. 

What is a Cognitive Interview Technique?

A cognitive interview technique is a method of questioning designed to encourage interviewees to provide as much detail as possible about an incident. It's called "cognitive" because it focuses on people's mental processes to remember events. It is based on the idea that memory is constructive; our memories are not perfect representations of what happened but a reconstruction of what we think we experienced.

There are several benefits to using a cognitive interview technique for workplace incidents:

  • Obtain Detailed and Accurate Information
    Cognitive interviews are designed to gather as much detailed and accurate information about the incident as possible. This information can help you understand what happened, how it happened, and how to prevent it from happening again. Cognitive interviews can help establish a consistent timeline and identify discrepancies in the various accounts in cases with multiple witnesses to an incident.
  • Prevention
    Investigating workplace incidents is essential for preventing future incidents from occurring. By using cognitive interviews to gather information about an incident, you can identify the underlying causes of the incident and take corrective action to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future.
  • Continuous improvement
    Workplace incidents can provide valuable insights into other areas where improvements can be made. By using cognitive interviews to gather information about an incident, you can identify opportunities for improvement and implement changes to prevent related incidents from occurring in other processes or areas of the workplace.
  • Employee engagement
    Using cognitive interviews as part of the incident investigation process can also help to engage employees in the investigation process. By encouraging employees to share their experiences and perspectives on the incident, you can demonstrate commitment to workplace safety, build trust with employees, and create a more robust safety culture.
  • Compliance
    In many industries, employers are required by law to investigate workplace incidents. Using cognitive interviews as part of your incident investigation process, one can meet legal requirements and comply with regulations. Thoroughly investigating workplace safety incidents and taking corrective action can demonstrate that the company is taking the necessary steps to ensure the safety of its employees, which can help reduce the likelihood of legal action being taken.

How to Conduct a Cognitive Interview

During a cognitive interview, the interviewer may use several techniques that encourage the interviewee to provide a detailed description of the incident. When conducting a cognitive interview, following a structured approach is essential. Here are some techniques for conducting a successful cognitive interview:

  1. Establish rapport with the interviewee: The interviewee should feel comfortable and at ease before the interview begins. Establishing rapport can help put the interviewee at ease and encourage them to provide more detailed information.
  2. Ask Open-Ended Questions: Open-ended questions encourage the interviewee to provide a detailed description of the incident. They should be asked in a non-leading way to avoid influencing the interviewee's memory.
  3. Free recall: In this technique, the interviewer asks the interviewee to provide a full account of the event without interruption. This technique encourages the interviewee to recall as much detail as possible without being influenced by the interviewer.
  4. Mental reinstatement: This technique involves asking the interviewee to recreate the context and environment of the event mentally. The interviewee is encouraged to recall sensory details such as sounds, smells, and colors to aid in recalling the event.
  5. Change perspective: In this technique, the interviewee is asked to recall the event from different perspectives, such as from the viewpoint of another person present during the event. This technique can help to uncover new details and views on the event.
  6. Repeated retrieval: This technique involves asking the interviewee to recall the event multiple times over a period of time. This technique can help to consolidate memories and recall information that may have been missed in previous interviews.
  7. Timeline: This technique involves asking the interviewee to provide a chronological event timeline. This technique can help identify discrepancies or inconsistencies in the interviewee's event account.

These techniques are used in different combinations depending on the specific needs of the investigation. By properly using these techniques, investigators can elicit more accurate and detailed information about an event, which can be used to prevent future incidents and ensure workplace safety.

Pro Tip: Building Backward

One powerful twist to applying the timeline technique mentioned above is asking an interviewee to remember workplace incident events in reverse order. There are several benefits when asking someone to remember events in an order they may not be used to recalling:

  • Encourages a Different Recall Method: Asking an interviewee to recall the events of an incident in reverse order can help stimulate a different recall method. Typically, people tend to recall events in the order they happened. However, asking them to recall events in reverse order can encourage them to think more deeply about the incident and may bring to light details they may have forgotten or missed when remembering events chronologically.
  • It helps to Identify Inaccuracies or Discrepancies in the Interviewee's Account: Recalling events in reverse order can help interviewers identify inaccuracies or discrepancies in the interviewee's account of the incident. If an interviewee's account changes or becomes unclear when recalling the events in reverse order, it may indicate that they are not being truthful or that their recollection of events is inaccurate.
  • Reduces the Impact of Preconceptions and Expectations: Recalling events in reverse order can help reduce the impact of preconceptions or expectations that interviewees may have about the incident. Interviewees may have biases or assumptions about the sequence of events, and asking them to recall events in reverse order can help to mitigate these biases and ensure that the account is more accurate.

Overall, asking an interviewee to recall workplace incident events in reverse order can help investigators to gain a more accurate and detailed understanding of what happened.

It is essential to remember that conducting a cognitive interview for workplace incidents requires proper training and preparation. Interviewers need to understand the cognitive processes involved in memory and the various techniques used in cognitive interviewing to ensure that the interview is effective and accurate.

Tips for Interview Success

First and foremost, it's essential to approach the worker with empathy and understanding. Recognize that they may be feeling anxious, upset, or even traumatized by the incident, and make it clear that you're there to support them and help them get through this difficult time.

Here are a few other tips that can help make the worker more comfortable:

  1. Start by thanking the worker for their time and willingness to talk to you. Let them know that you appreciate their help in understanding what happened and how to prevent it in the future.
  2. Create a safe and confidential space for the interview. Choose a private location where the worker won't be interrupted or overheard if possible. Let them know that anything they say will be kept confidential and won't be used against them in any way. Don't place an object, like a desk, between you and the interviewee - sit with them. Let them sit near the door and give them a comfortable chair - all of these things can make the space safer for them to relax and feel more at ease.
  3. Be respectful and non-judgmental in your tone and body language. Don't interrupt the worker or argue with them, even if you disagree with what they're saying. Show that you're listening carefully and taking their words seriously.
  4. Offer support and resources if the worker needs them. Depending on the nature of the incident, they may need medical attention, counseling, or other types of assistance. Let them know that you're there to help and that you can connect them with any resources they need.

These are not interrogations, where you have evidence that they have done something wrong and need them to confess. They can help you learn how work happens so you can look for opportunities to improve together, so the event does not happen again. - Blaine J. Hoffmann, MS OSHM

Remember, the goal of the post-incident interview is to learn from what happened and prevent it from happening again. By approaching the worker with empathy and understanding, you can help them feel more comfortable and willing to share their experiences and insights.


In summary, cognitive interviews are an effective tool for investigating workplace incidents. By using cognitive interviews as part of your incident investigation process, you can improve the accuracy of your investigations, prevent future incidents, comply with legal requirements, engage employees, and continuously improve your workplace safety programs.

Blaine J. Hoffmann, MS OSHM
Blaine J. Hoffmann, MS OSHM

Blaine J. Hoffmann has been in the occupational safety & health industry for 28 years. He is the producer and host of The SafetyPro Podcast and founded the SafetyPro Podcast Community Site.

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Part 5 of Framing to Persuade
Create a Sense of Urgency

Creating a sense of urgency is a pivotal strategy in gaining stakeholder engagement and accelerating the decision-making process. It involves communicating the need for immediate action due to the critical nature of the circumstances. However, it's crucial to strike the right balance—too little urgency may result in complacency, while too much can lead to panic or skepticism.

Techniques for Creating a Sense of Urgency:

  1. Highlight Immediate Risks: Discuss the direct and immediate risks that the company faces if we do not take action.
  2. Show the Cost of Inaction: Quantify the financial, operational, and human costs of not implementing the safety program.
  3. Leverage Time-Sensitive Opportunities: If applicable, consider any time-sensitive opportunities such as limited-time financial incentives, regulatory deadlines, or emerging threats that necessitate quick action.
  4. Invoke Competitive Advantage: Mention how quick action can position the company ahead of competitors, enhancing its reputation and market position.
  5. Personalize the Message: Make the sense of urgency resonate personally with the stakeholders by showing how it affects them directly.

Example of Creating a Sense of Urgency:

Scenario: You propose implementing an ergonomic assessment program to reduce the increasing number of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) among assembly line workers.

Technique Utilization:

Here's how you might apply the techniques above in a communication strategy:

  1. Highlight Immediate Risks: You start by discussing the recent 20% spike in MSD cases reported in the last quarter, the direct impact this has had on the workers' health, and the increase in workers' compensation claims.
  2. Show the Cost of Inaction: You present a graph showing increasing costs associated with MSD-related absenteeism and medical claims. You further mention that if we do not take action, the projected costs could double in the next fiscal year due to escalating insurance premiums and potential legal actions.
  3. Leverage Time-Sensitive Opportunities: You indicate that there is an opportunity to apply for a government grant that subsidizes workplace health programs, but the application deadline is fast approaching.
  4. Invoke Competitive Advantage: You cite a study that shows companies with ergonomic assessment programs have a 25% lower turnover rate and a 15% higher employee productivity rate, suggesting that swift implementation could give the company a significant edge over competitors.
  5. Personalize the Message: In your proposal, you include testimonials from several employees expressing their concerns about the increasing difficulty of their tasks. You link this to how the proposed program could alleviate their physical strain and improve daily work experiences.

Communication Example:

"Our team is our most valuable asset, and right now, they are at risk. In just the past three months, we've seen a troubling rise in work-related injuries that not only affect the lives of our employees but also the heart of our operation. Without immediate action, we face a potential doubling of injury-related costs, threatening our financial stability; this is not a forecast but a reality knocking on our door.

Moreover, we have a narrow window to capitalize on a grant that could fund half of our program costs, but we must act now. By implementing this ergonomic assessment program swiftly, we don't just prevent a negative outcome; we set ourselves up as industry leaders in employee health and productivity. We have the chance to turn a looming crisis into a strategic advantage. Let's not wait for the situation to dictate our actions; instead, let's take control and show our employees and the industry that we prioritize their health and our company's future. The time to act is unequivocally now."

By conveying the immediacy of the risks and the benefits of prompt action and personalizing the impact, you can effectively create a sense of urgency that motivates stakeholders to support the implementation of the safety program promptly.

Watch for Part 6 of Framing to Persuade: Tell a Compelling Story. Share your thoughts on Part 5 by joining the conversation at The SafetyPro Podcast community site today!

Blaine J. Hoffmann, MS OSHM
Blaine J. Hoffmann, MS OSHM

Blaine J. Hoffmann has been in the occupational safety & health industry for over 28 years and is the author of "Rethinking SAFETY Culture," available now. Blaine is the producer and host of The SafetyPro Podcast and founded the SafetyPro Podcast community site.

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Part 4 of Framing to Persuade
Utilize Risk Communication

In Part 4 of Framing to Persuade, we will discuss the importance of communicating the risks of not adopting your proposed program. Risk communication is critical to persuading stakeholders to support safety program initiatives. It involves conveying the potential risks and consequences of not implementing a safety measure and how the program will mitigate them. The goal is to make the stakes clear and relatable without inducing unnecessary fear, providing a balanced view emphasizing action's importance.

Principles of Effective Risk Communication:

  1. Clarity: Use clear and concise language to describe risks, avoiding technical jargon that may confuse non-specialist stakeholders.
  2. Relevance: Relate risks to the stakeholders' personal or professional concerns to illustrate the impact on what they value most.
  3. Proportionality: Present risks in proportion to their severity and the likelihood of occurrence to avoid overstating or understating the case.
  4. Empowerment: Alongside communicating risks, always present the means to manage and mitigate them to empower stakeholders rather than leave them feeling helpless.
  5. Consistency: Ensure that the message about risks remains consistent across all communication channels and points in time.

Example of Utilizing Risk Communication:

Scenario: You propose upgrading the current fire safety system within the company's manufacturing plant.

Risk Communication Strategy:

Your objective is to communicate the risks associated with the outdated fire safety system while presenting the proposed upgrade as a necessary improvement for mitigating those risks.

  1. Clarity: You state that the current fire alarm system does not integrate with the latest smoke detection technologies, which could delay fire detection and evacuation in an emergency.
  2. Relevance: To illustrate the personal impact, you mention a recent incident at a nearby plant where delayed evacuation due to inadequate fire detection led to injuries. You connect this to how the proposed system can prevent such scenarios in your organization.
  3. Proportionality: You share statistics on the likelihood of industrial fires and their average cost in damages and human life, positioning the new system as a cost-effective way to reduce these risks significantly.
  4. Empowerment: You explain how you can remotely monitor the new fire safety system, allow for faster evacuation with clear and multiple exit strategies, and allow emergency services to interface with the system for immediate response.
  5. Consistency: Throughout all presentations and documentation, you maintain the same data points and messaging to ensure stakeholders understand the risks and the proposed solution uniformly.

Communication Example:

"While our current fire safety system has served us well, it is not equipped to handle the complex challenges of modern manufacturing risks. For instance, the XYZ incident last month, only 50 miles from us, demonstrated the disastrous consequences of outdated fire detection — consequences that affected real people, just like our employees. Data shows that similar manufacturing plants face a 25% higher risk of fire incidents than other sectors, which isn't just about compliance; it's about readiness and responsibility. Adopting the new system will improve our response time to potential fires, potentially saving lives and minimizing financial losses due to operational downtime. It's an essential investment in our future safety and operational stability. With consistent training and clear emergency protocols, our team will not just be aware of the risks but will also equip us to face and manage them efficiently."

Through effective risk communication, you have highlighted the dangers of maintaining the status quo and positioned the safety program as a crucial improvement for the employees' well-being and the company's resilience. This approach can significantly sway the decision-making process of the proposed safety measures.

Be on the lookout for Part 5 of Framing to Persuade: Create a Sense of Urgency. Share your thoughts on Part 4 by joining the conversation at The SafetyPro Podcast community site today!

Blaine J. Hoffmann, MS OSHM
Blaine J. Hoffmann, MS OSHM

Blaine J. Hoffmann has been in the occupational safety & health industry for over 28 years and is the author of "Rethinking SAFETY Culture," available now. Blaine is the producer and host of The SafetyPro Podcast and founded the SafetyPro Podcast community site.

Read full Article
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Part 3 of Framing to Persuade
Highlighting Benefits Over Features

In part 3 of our series Framing to Persuade, we will discuss the importance of highlighting benefits over features. When presenting a new safety program, distinguishing features and benefits can make or break stakeholder buy-in. Features describe the program's specific characteristics or functions, while benefits explain how those features will improve the organization's or stakeholders' experiences. Here's how you can shift the focus from features to benefits:

Shifting Focus to Benefits:

  1. Translate Features into Benefits: For each feature of your safety program, ask yourself, "What does this mean for the stakeholder?" which helps turn a descriptive feature into a persuasive benefit.
  2. Align Benefits with Stakeholder Values: Once you understand the benefit, align it with what you've identified as your stakeholders' primary values and concerns.
  3. Use Persuasive Language: Craft your message using language that evokes a vision of the improved future state that the benefit will create.
  4. Be Specific and Quantifiable: Use data and statistics to support how benefits can be quantified, such as reduced incident rates or financial savings.
  5. Create a Clear Comparison: Show a before-and-after scenario that illustrates the positive change from the current state to the proposed state with the new safety program.

Example of Highlighting Benefits Over Features:

Scenario: You are introducing a new wearable technology program that monitors employees' exposure to hazardous conditions in real-time.

Features might include:

  • Real-time monitoring of environmental conditions.
  • Automatic alerts when hazardous levels are detected.
  • Data logging for incident analysis and compliance reporting.

To effectively highlight benefits over features, you might frame each point as follows:

Real-Time Monitoring

  • Feature: The wearable technology provides real-time monitoring of environmental conditions.
  • Benefit: This ensures immediate awareness and response to potential hazards, safeguarding employee health and preventing minor issues from escalating into serious incidents. You could say, "With this technology, our team will always be one step ahead, ensuring a proactive safety environment."

Automatic Alerts

  • Feature: The system sends automatic alerts when hazardous levels are detected.
  • Benefit: Employees and supervisors can act immediately to mitigate risks, significantly reducing the likelihood of accidents. A persuasive way to frame this could be, "Imagine a workday where you can manage risks instantly, providing peace of mind for everyone on the floor."

Data Logging

  • Feature: It includes comprehensive data logging for incident analysis and compliance reporting.
  • Benefit: This feature simplifies the incident investigation process and makes compliance easier, leading to more productive use of management's time and a more robust defense during audits. You might present this as, "This isn't just technology; it's the future of effortless compliance and simplified safety management."

In framing the discussion, you would emphasize that this wearable technology program is more than just a set of high-tech tools—it's an integral part of creating a safer workplace. For instance, you might say:

"Imagine a work environment where employees are empowered to manage their safety proactively. Our new wearable technology isn't just about monitoring; it's a commitment to our workforce's health and well-being. By instantly alerting staff to potential dangers, we're not just preventing accidents but promoting individual safety awareness. Beyond the direct benefits to each employee, the data logging feature streamlines our compliance process, turning what used to be hours of paperwork into a few clicks, which isn't just innovation—it's transforming how we prioritize and handle workplace safety."

By focusing on the benefits and tying them back to the values and concerns of your stakeholders, you create a compelling narrative that makes adopting the new safety program an attractive and logical step for your organization.

Look for Part 4 of Framing to Persuade: Utilize Risk Communication. Share your thoughts on Part 3 by joining the conversation at The SafetyPro Podcast community site today!

Blaine J. Hoffmann, MS OSHM
Blaine J. Hoffmann, MS OSHM

Blaine J. Hoffmann has been in the occupational safety & health industry for over 28 years and is the author of "Rethinking SAFETY Culture," available now. Blaine is the producer and host of The SafetyPro Podcast and founded the SafetyPro Podcast community site.

Read full Article
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