The Noggin Blog

Why Return to Work Shouldn’t Be a Return to Safety Underreporting

Posted by The Brain on Oct 13, 2020 4:13:55 PM

Before the COVID-19 crisis, the underreporting of accidents, injuries, illnesses, and other safety incidents loomed large as a major hurdle to improving safety performance. Since then, the pandemic has scrambled many safety priorities. But return to work shouldn’t be a return to safety underreporting. And here’s why.

MKT-478 - Safety Newsletter Graphic - 14 Oct 2020-01

Taken before the pandemic, the Underreporting of Safety Incidents in the Workplace survey estimated that some 25 percent of incidents, including near misses, as well as injuries, and property damage events, went underreported. When focused exclusively on Australia, the figure ballooned to 31 percent. Nor was it unusual to have firms with underreporting rates as high as 66 percent of all incidents.

If that’s not sufficiently alarming, there’s ample reason to believe that those estimates were overly conservative. A full 50 percent of workers admitted to experiencing at least one safety incident the year before the survey was taken. And thirty percent of workers failed to report a single incident.

And that’s not just frontline workers, either. Front-line managers and safety leaders were found to serially underreport, as well. That’s even when they are directly responsible for promoting a positive safety culture or have KPI’s tied to safety performance metrics. What’s more, because they experience fewer incidents than their subordinates, safety leaders were statistically likelier to underreport – as much as twice as likely.

In this pandemic moment, those figures need to change – and change fast. For, they augur major cost implications for firms that can scarcely afford them. The biggest is from the absence of analysis of events where injury to people or damage to property didn’t happen but could have.

Left underreported and not validated, these near misses have a tendency to escalate into larger incidents. The research, here, shows that near misses and small safety incidents point to stresses on and in the larger safety system.

We can, therefore, say that the cost of underreporting near-misses and small incidents gets borne out as cost of (eventual) safety incidents. And those costs are enormous, value crippling, if not business destroying.

What are those costs, specifically? Besides hard costs for compensation payouts, fines, increased premiums, and damage to plans and machineries, firms also incur the loss of time that could have been spent by a worker onsite. What’s more, safety culture, such that it exists, gets further degraded by safety incidents, which often leads to more incidents down the line.

So, what lessons can we take into this pandemic moment? The research suggests that underreporting is highest in working environments with poorer safety climates and/or where supervisor safety enforcement is inconsistent. The causes go deeper, since firms with proactive safety cultures and/or public compliance postures aren’t perfect, either.

Often that’s due to the nature of safety reporting itself. Frontline workers don’t always know which specific conditions should trigger reporting, doubly so in the case of near misses. The manuals or other sources of critical information that would inform them (if even centralised) aren’t always available in the field.

What’s more, there’s an understandable reluctance on part of workers to generate (oft-manual) incident reports. When workers do, the reports often provide too little (or no) insight on how to prevent the incident from happening again. One of the reasons why: workers argue that bureaucratic inertia means that they don’t receive substantive feedback on reported incidents.

Fortunately, though, investing in mobile, user-friendly integrated safety management tools will enable frontline workers to easily report safety incidents from the field, going a long way towards boosting reporting rates. Which capabilities matter in such a digital safety solution?

Download our Buyer’s Guide to Safety Management Software to find out.

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Topics: Work Health Safety, Safety Management, Safety Newsletter


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