NSCA Foundation

New study uncovers the drivers for underreporting safety incidents


Thursday, 29 November, 2018

New study uncovers the drivers for underreporting safety incidents

Do you know exactly how many incidents and near misses your team experiences each month? Are you confident that every single one is reported? How do you know for sure?

Accurate and timely reporting of safety incidents is important for creating a positive safety culture. Yet, in today’s workplace, 25% of safety incidents fail to be reported. In Australia, this is even higher at 31%, but some organisations report this figure to be as high as 66%, according to a recent study by Sentis.

Underreporting can result in serious and even deadly consequences in many industries. Failing to report a near-miss may not seem like a big deal, but if businesses don’t know about these incidents, they can’t prevent them in the future. This means a much higher chance of an injury or critical incident.

In order to change a culture of underreporting, it is important to understand the attitudes that contribute. The Sentis study analysed responses from more than 12,460 workers across manufacturing, agriculture, construction, education, government, mining, industrial services, utilities, and oil and gas. The study, ‘Underreporting in the Workplace: Recommendations for Improved Safety Outcomes’, explores the three main drivers of underreporting, along with key strategies to encourage a culture of reporting.

Workers choose not to report because they underappreciate the benefits of reporting

Interestingly, the most common reason for underreporting was that people “took care of the problem themselves”. On the surface this might signal initiative and good intent. But in some cases, this may point to a deliberate effort to ‘cover up’ incidents in the workplace.

Regardless of intent, choosing not to report a workplace incident points to a lack of understanding of the benefits of reporting. Without a report, leaders can’t know what really happens on the frontline. They can’t put in place measures to avoid future incidents. They can’t know what’s working and what’s not, or where to invest resources to improve safety and efficiency. As a result, organisations miss the opportunity to resolve potential systemic issues — leading to inefficiencies and a false sense of security.

Another common theme was that workers “didn’t think it was that important”. This attitude of indifference is concerning and likely to be coupled with behaviours of non-compliance. The study found this attitude towards reporting to be typical of a negative safety culture, highlighting the opportunity for organisations to provide greater clarity and education around the benefits of reporting. This includes in business-as-usual activities like prestart meetings, toolbox talks, safety meetings and executive communications. But while it is important to verbally state the importance of reporting, it is important to note that a stronger case is presented when improvement and learning outcomes are shared post-report and/or investigation.

Workers choose not to report because they fear negative repercussions

The study also found that underreporting doesn’t necessarily mean that people are indifferent to safety. In fact, 37% of workers were afraid to report due to a fear of negative repercussions.

These negative repercussions include, but are not limited to:

  • being blamed by others
  • a blemish on their record
  • peer disapproval if a safety bonus is lost
  • overly harsh or punitive disciplinary action
  • loss of their job
  • being labelled a troublemaker
  • angering team members
  • “ratting out” someone who wasn’t following correct procedure.

Are these negative repercussions valid? While some employees have experienced these firsthand, many have been influenced by second-hand experiences. Hearing that an employee was treated unfairly for reporting can cultivate distrust and fear — even if this experience was years earlier.

Reports from research participants illustrate this sentiment. “Putting stuff into [the reporting system] can be like putting your head in a noose,” one participant admitted.

Another said: “When injured they’ll report it, but when it’s a hazard improvement or a near-miss or equipment damage is slow, people are too scared they’re going to get belted for it. They think we [leaders] are a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Clearly the fear of negative repercussions is real in the mind of the workforce, so how do organisations begin to address this? It isn’t easy and doesn’t happen overnight, but investing in leaders is an important place to start. Equipping leaders with the skills to create positive motivation towards safety and effectively close feedback loops is critical. Furthermore, organisations should seek to foster a culture where workers feel comfortable to speak up for safety and are positively recognised for the improvements that result.

Workers choose not to report because of issues with their company’s reporting process

A quarter of workers who underreport do so because of the reporting process itself. This is good news for businesses, as this is arguably one of the easiest things to change.

The study found that if the reporting process is time-consuming, complex or complicated, employees are naturally more likely to ‘opt out’ of reporting. According to one participant, “It’s so much effort when you do report that you’re better off not to.”

Undertaking a critical review of organisational reporting processes can help to identify whether the process itself is in fact a deterrent.

The study also found that employees were often uncertain around what constitutes a near-miss, and why it’s so important to report these incidents. One participant shared, “I can guarantee there are 10 near-misses a day that people don’t report because they don’t even know how to clarify/identify a near-miss.”

In addition to identifying and addressing process barriers, it is clear that education remains a priority. This includes educating leaders on the importance of actioning reports and closing the feedback loop in a timely and transparent manner.

Leaders are not immune to underreporting

Senior leaders can be quick to point the finger at frontline workers when they discover their underreporting rate. Rarely do they consider underreporting to be an issue that occurs throughout all levels of the business. While frontline workers do have the highest underreporting rate at 32%, underreporting isn’t limited to just these employees.

According to the study, 24% of frontline leaders and management who have experienced an incident have chosen not to report at least one. Instead of being positive role models, the data shows that 1 in 4 frontline leaders are failing to report, on average, 6 incidents per year. Concerningly, this figure is even higher for management with 1 in 4 failing to report an average of 11 incidents per year.

By failing to report safety incidents and errors themselves, leaders inadvertently give permission for teams to do the same and effectively undermine attempts to embed safety as a core organisational value. Positive safety role modelling is an important leadership capability and organisations would do well to support leaders with their soft-skill development.

Underreporting is a symptom of a larger cultural issue

It can often be difficult to pinpoint exactly why workers are failing to report incidents in a business. Is the reporting system time-consuming? Are staff concerned about negative repercussions? Are leaders failing to act as role models?

The level of underreporting in an organisation will be influenced by its safety culture. The study found that businesses with the highest rates of underreporting (up to 30% on average) have negative safety cultures. On the other hand, individuals working in a more positive, private compliance culture have a notably lower underreporting rate of 13%.

With this in mind, the goal should be to improve safety culture as a whole. This may mean investing in leader coaching, targeted training and encouraging immediate, positive responses to incident reporting. Reporting should be easy and intuitive, while feedback loops should ensure employees can immediately see the positive results from reporting.

Furthermore, leaders need to be positive role models, reporting issues and demonstrating correct safety behaviours to their teams. They also need to be equipped with the soft skills required to foster a culture where employees make safe choices (without continual monitoring).

Examining the current safety culture and any organisational nuances that exist is an important first step. Only then can organisations know what’s working and what’s not — specifically the cultural attitudes that might be holding back their safety performance. If underreporting is to be addressed and safety outcomes improved, commitment and cooperation are required from every level of the business.

Download the full report at www.sentis.com.au/underreporting to learn more, including additional findings and specific recommendations for addressing each driver of underreporting.

NSCA Foundation is a member based, non-profit organisation working together with members to improve workplace health and safety throughout Australia. For more information and membership details click here
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