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Before COVID-19: Was the serial underreporting of safety incidents the canary in the coalmine for frontline-worker safety risk?

Posted by The Brain on Apr 27, 2020 12:38:12 PM

Frontline workers, especially healthcare professionals, have become the faces of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In areas hard hit by the rapid spread of the coronavirus, like Lombardy, New York City, and New Orleans, stories of the noble sacrifices of healthcare workers who have had to risk their personal safety to treat patients without an adequate stock of personal protective equipment (PPE) have proliferated – incomplete data sources point to at least 5,400 healthcare workers COVID-19 infections in the U.S. alone, with dozens of deaths.MKT-374 - CV19 frontline-workers-01 (1)Not just healthcare professionals, either. Frontline workers in supermarkets and groceries, manufacturing, emergency response have all admirably played their parts in supporting the public, whether it’s ensuring a stable food supply, maintaining critical supply chains, or transporting the sickest to hospitals. And they, too, have courted outsized safety risk doing their jobs.

Though the data has long shown significant safety risk existing in many of these sectors, even before they were upended by the rapid spread of the coronavirus, we also know the underreporting of safety incidents existed across broad swathes of modern workplace. How bad? Perhaps, crisis proportions. A recent Underreporting of Safety Incidents in the Workplace survey put the global total at 25 percent. That’s a full quarter of workplace incidents, including near misses, as well as injuries and property damage events, that go underreported. When you zero in on Australia, the figure balloons to 31 percent; some Australia-based firms even report numbers as high as 66 percent. 

In the U.S., reporting rates are even worse. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as many as 69 percent of injuries and illnesses never make it into the nation’s annual workplace safety and health report card, the Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses (SOII).

And if anything, these top-line survey data results might be underplaying the full implications of the safety incident underreporting problem. For instance, a full 50 percent of workers reported experiencing at least one incident in the last year. Thirty percent of workers failed to report at least one incident; that averages out to a rate of 6.3 unreported incidents per worker.

Those unreported near misses and underreported safety incidents have long pointed to significant stresses on larger safety systems, which might have now come completely undone during the COVID-19 crisis. Indeed, the research points to poor organizational safety climates as one cause of low safety reporting, showing how companies with public compliance posture ultimately enjoying higher safety reporting rates.   

So, what’s the solution? Well, the COVID-19 crisis, having shown the particular vulnerability of frontline workers, should spur a renewed focus on safety compliance, which might produce proactive safety cultures that prioritize reporting.

That’s not all. Reinforcing the importance of reporting through rigorous trainings and site-specific inductions will also make a difference. While many jurisdictions mandate training as part of a worker’s induction, the quality of those trainings can vary widely. Poor training, minimal involvement in safety initiatives, and low supervision all imperil frontline worker, especially those workers who haven’t acquired the necessary skills or safety knowledge to pursue the job at hand.

And, of course, there’s improving reporting functionality. Safety reporting is rarely a pleasure. And frontline workers often decry not having the ability to report incidents, hazards, and observations when they’re in the field. Instead, they often have to wait until they’re back in the office, by which time they might have forgotten key details of the incident in question. So, integrating easy-to-use reporting functionality in advanced risk and safety management systems should do the trick, as well as capabilities to enable companies to monitor inventories of PPE, so as to model potential the impact of possible supply chain impacts.

Finally, frontline workers have made other-worldy sacrifices of personal health and safety during this COVID-19 crisis. A fitting tribute would be for PCBUs to make needed safety investments, including tackling the scourge of safety underreporting.

Download our complimentary Guide to Managing the Underreporting of Safety Incidents in the Workplace to learn tips for combating the underreporting of incidents:

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Topics: Work Health Safety, Safety Management, Epidemic Response Module


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