Linking Culture to Accident Reporting

When it comes to timely and compliant accident reporting, unwritten communication -- a company's culture and supervisors' behaviors -- may speak louder than any documented policy or procedure, according to new research.

Thursday, March 20, 2014
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Employees whose supervisors consistently enforce safety behaviors and those who are employed in organizations with a pro-safety climate are less likely to engage in accident underreporting, new research from Washington State University shows.

"Underreporting was nearly nonexistent when employees had a supervisor with strong safety leadership skills and also were working in an organization with a positive safety climate," says Tahira M. Probst, a professor at Washington State University in Vancouver, Wash., and author of the report, which was partially supported by the Society for Human Resource Management Foundation.

"However, nearly equally positive results were found if either one of these factors was present. In other words, as long as an employee either has a safety-conscious supervisor or was working in a company with a positive safety climate, underreporting was quite low."

In the study, which included data from 1,379 employees in 35 organizations, Probst found that the average number of accidents reported (1.47 per employee) across organizations was significantly lower than the average number of accidents experienced: 3.43 per employee. The research showed employees in organizations with a poor safety climate engaged in more accident underreporting than employees in organizations with more positive safety climates. 

"The highest rates of underreporting were only seen when neither [a safety-conscious supervisor or a positive safety climate were] present," Probst says. "This indicates to me that there are multiple opportunities and possible interventions for reducing underreporting of injuries at the supervisor and organization levels."

Other research (such as a 2013 study by Probst that connected perceptions of job insecurity to both increased workplace accidents and underreporting) show that additional factors such as demographic and attitudinal characteristics -- fear of reprisals or loss of workplace perks and pay incentives, fear of job loss and individual beliefs regarding accidents and injuries -- play a role.

To fight the underreporting, HR leaders should examine company culture, she says.

"A company's climate provides clues to employees regarding what is expected, valued and rewarded, and these clues can have a strong impact on eventual employee behavior," Probst says. "With respect to safety climate, there are several mechanisms that may be at work here. First, if employees lack safety training or if safety communication is poor, then they may not know what constitutes a reportable incident or how to correctly report it to the organization. Further, if management is perceived as devaluing safety, employees may (correctly or not) assume their company doesn't want to hear or know about injuries when they occur."

Punitive safety systems may encourage underreporting by making rewards and punishments contingent on safety outcomes rather than behaviors, she says.

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration in Washington discourages employers from using injury counts as a primary basis for rewards in the administration's Voluntary Protection Program guidance materials, which say incentive programs "must focus on ensuring that any incentive programs in operation are not based solely on providing awards to employees for the reduction or absence of safety or health incidents" and that programs "should be innovative, positive, and promote safety awareness and employee participation in safety-related activities."

In 2009, the administration initiated a National Emphasis Program on recordkeeping to identify and correct under-recorded and incorrectly recorded cases. Administration staff inspected a few hundred facilities in a three-year span and found -- at about half of the establishments inspected -- that 23 percent of recordable cases were either not recorded or under-recorded.

An OSHA administration spokesperson provided a written statement on underreporting and related studies. According to the statement, "investigating injuries, and learning from them, is one of the most important ways to prevent future injuries from occurring. Nothing can be learned from an injury that isn't reported. OSHA will continue to encourage employers to use their recordkeeping systems as a way to identify and fix workplace hazards, and we hope to make such efforts even more effective by modernizing recordkeeping practices."

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Employers should review policies that may provide a disincentive to reporting injuries and illnesses, and train employees in the proper reporting procedures using "both a language and vocabulary that the employees can understand," the statement says.

Employers also should consider factors such as workforce size and culture to determine what reporting procedures and training programs are most effective, according to the OSHA statement.

Helen Darling, president and CEO of the National Business Group on Health, says it's no surprise that Probst's research finds that culture and safety are intertwined.

"In virtually everything we know, culture is the primary driver, enabler or barrier," she says. "HR should take these research results and look for evidence that their culture supports and rewards safety, as well as other factors that ensure the health, well-being and productivity of its employees. There is a close tie between having a culture of health and a culture of safety. In fact, one of the strongest arguments and cost justifications for focusing on well-being, resiliency and discretionary energy is safety."

At Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System in Salinas, Calif., leaders review policies and attitudes proactively and after an accident or near miss, says Jill Peralta-Cuellar, the organization's employee-health manager.

"We have achieved success at Salinas Valley Memorial by asking for input rather than placing blame," she says. "Employees know to notify their manager of safety issues so an appropriate investigation can take place. Any issue or potential safety concern triggers discussion and opportunities for clearly defined solutions that engage staff. When employees know they are being heard and are part of the solution, it is easier to build a culture of safety. The key is to have an open door policy with no retaliation in reporting, and accountability for all to follow policy and procedure and do the right thing."

The organization's employee health team also uses job shadowing to identify potential problems.

"We go beyond watching employees do their jobs and engage them in open conversations about safety concerns," Peralta-Cuellar says. "We have also increased the number of non-biased accident investigations to include all reported injuries and not just specific injury types as we did in the past. Together these efforts have resulted in more communication and earlier communication surrounding safety concerns."

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