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Does your incident reporting improve safety outcomes?

hazard_reportingAcross industries, many employers are no doubt aware of the importance of having a robust and utilised hazard observation and incident reporting system. Such a system has the goal of alerting company decision makers on sources of potential health, safety and process risk, and effectively directing the risk management approach.

The exact predictive power of safety incidents or near misses on future safety events is complex and not always positive (e.g. minor incidents may not be predictive of major incidents or fatalities and focussing on near misses may not reduce accident frequency [1,2,3]). Nevertheless, the use of such reporting and analysis mechanisms may be important for developing a sound culture of safety,4 averting large-scale industrial disasters (by using retrospective safety information as a form of organisational learning [5]),  and may also be important for proactively meeting legal duties.  Indeed, the national code of practice for managing work health and safety risk (6) goes so far as to state the importance of:

  • Workers that are actively involved in identifying hazards and openly raise health and safety concerns, safety incidents and near miss events; and
  • Employers that analyse their records of health monitoring, safety incidents, near misses, worker complaints, sick leave and the results of any inspections and investigations to identify hazards (pp. 8, 18).

Demonstrating the importance of collecting and following up on safety incidents, a 2007 study analysed the links between driving near-miss sleepy events (e.g. a microsleep nearly resulting in a crash) and actual driving accidents. This study obtained driving behaviour information from 35,217 individuals using an online survey. Results indicated that near-miss sleepy events were extremely common: 18.3% of the tested sample had at least one in the past three years, or approximately 14 times higher than actual sleepy accidents (1.3% of sample had at least one actual sleep-related accident). Importantly, near-miss events were found to predict those at risk of vehicle crashes in a dose-response fashion—indicating that “near-miss sleepy accidents may be a useful metric for identifying people at risk of accidents and may present an opportunity to develop safety strategies to reduce accidents” (6) (pg. 336).

However, the use of near-miss and safety incident data to forecast risk depends entirely on whether these incidents are factually reported in the first place. Unfortunately, some data suggests considerable underreporting of workplace safety incidents. Two studies found that workers failed to report to the organisation between 71-80% of all experienced safety incidents (7,8). Other results found employees failed to report to supervisors over half of all experienced safety incidents (9).

A range of factors have been implicated in incident underreporting. These include:

  • Age and job tenure;
  • Fear of reprisal or loss of employment benefits;
  • An acceptance that injuries are part and parcel with particular types of work;
  • High production pressure;
  • Blame culture, yet a poor or inconsistent supervisor enforcement of safety policies;
  • Lack of feedback; and
  • Belief that the incident or near miss is trivial (7,8,11).

A range of other factors are highlighted below in Table 1. Interestingly, Probst and Graso7 found that high production pressure was also related to more negative reporting attitudes by workers. Workers who had higher positive reporting attitudes were less likely to have a work-related incident, but more likely to report them when they did occur. Conversely, workers who perceived high levels of production pressure were more likely to be involved in an incident and less likely to report them.

Putting it all together, these factors reflect the culture of safety at the company. A poor reporting culture was a crucial contributor to the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown (10). A reporting culture that involves hazard, incident and near-miss reporting and operator feedback permits the uncovering of what Professor James Reason terms “recurrent error traps”, or, in other words, revealing the edge of the safety system before “falling over it” (10).

Thus, a strong commitment to developing a positive culture of safety that permits effective and honest incident and near miss reporting is pivotal.
Table 1. Most common reasons for incident underreporting and perceived consequence for reporting incidents

Item Worker response rate (%)
Reasons for under-reporting
I took care of the problem myself 74
I did not want to go through the follow-up interviews and questions 69
I did not think anything would be done to fix the problem 51
I did not think it was that important 48
I thought it would make work unpleasant 42
I did not want to be the one to break the company’s accident-free record 38
I thought it would affect my crew’s safety scorecard 37
Consequences of reporting
Your group lost scorecard points 37
You were blamed for the incident 24
You were blamed for ending the company’s accident-free record 22
People gossiped about you in an unkind or negative way 20
You were unfairly disciplined 19
You were mistreated in some other way 12
You were given an unfair performance evaluation 11
You were given less favorable duties 10


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TMS Consulting