Jim* had been working in the same blue-collar role for over 30 years. His shift began at 3 am every day. Before starting any work, he was required to complete at least 15 different checks on the machinery he was due to operate. When asked what he’d do if the machinery didn’t meet the required specifications, he’d respond, “She’ll be right mate—we’ve never had an issue before”.
Jim’s rationale was that reporting an issue meant more paperwork and wasted time waiting to hear back from his manager. Reporting would put him hours behind schedule.
At Jim’s organisation, this attitude of ‘getting on with the work’ irrespective of hazards or issues seemed to permeate throughout. Issues weren’t reported and employees continued to treat the workplace as a means to an end, taking little pride in their work. There was an old-school mentality that safety was just a way for the company to cover their legal obligations.
The result? The organisation continued to achieve poor safety results and individuals were being injured daily.
Even one individual with an unhelpful attitude can have a negative impact on the safety culture of an organisation. In Jim’s case, it was evident that the mentality of coming to work and doing ‘whatever it takes to get the work done quickly’ was being passed down to even the youngest apprentices.
Unfortunately, stories like this are fairly common. At Sentis, we find that, on average, 25% of incidents go unreported and in some organisations this number soars as high as a staggering 66%.
So what causes people to actively choose not to report issues and hazards?
At Sentis, we help companies measure and improve their safety culture and our award-winning research team gather and analyse a myriad of data when designing the right solution for our clients. Data from a recent two-year, cross-industry study has identified key characteristics that contribute to positive and negative safety drivers such as underreporting.
From the study we uncovered five reasons it might be occurring in your organisation:
Since this article was published, Sentis has conducted a secondary study that comprehensively explores safety incident underreporting in the workplace.
Download the full report to learn who underreports, why, and in what circumstance, as well as recommendations for addressing underreporting in your workplace.
1. Lack of clarity around the conditions that trigger reporting
Managers and leaders are sometimes unaware that a key barrier to reporting is a lack of clarity around the conditions that actually warrant reporting. Employees can be confused about what needs to be reported, when, how, and to whom. But why is this the case? Most companies would communicate this information to the frontline, likely starting during the induction and training process for new employees. It is important to note that even when information has been provided, it doesn’t necessarily mean it has been understood.
Challenges can exist in message delivery. For example, critical information is often shared via email. Frontline workers may not have regular access to a computer, so it should not be assumed that the message has been received. Furthermore, even if it has been received, will it be interpreted in the same way by every recipient?
Critical information is often also shared verbally in meetings such as toolbox talks or pre-starts. Again, the way the information is shared is critical to individuals being able to recall that information. If the toolbox talks or pre-starts are delivered in the same way, by the same person, on a regular basis and they provide too much information or are not particularly engaging or interesting, the brain’s natural tendency is to conserve energy and zone out, meaning that employees may not take in or remember the information provided.
So, what can we do to ensure that critical communications around reporting are received and understood? Firstly, ensure multiple methods of delivery. Our brain requires information to be presented numerous times, at numerous intervals for successful comprehension and understanding. Secondly, consider the way in which the information is presented. Make meetings more engaging to ensure employees are interested and willing to listen to the information that is being presented, and try not to overload your workers with too much information at once.
2. Failure to formalise reports for the benefit of learning and development
Another common barrier to reporting is a failure to formalise reports for the benefit of learning and improvement. In our experience, organisations that suffer from high levels of underreporting either don’t generate reports following an incident, or if they do, they provide little to no information on how to prevent the same issue from occurring again in the future.
Naturally, this fosters an unwillingness to report in the future and a lack of desire to continually improve. Employees begin to decrease the amount of discretionary effort they put in and reporting becomes a ‘waste of time’.
Leaders need to not only drive the message of continuous improvement, but also take the lead and role model how to look for opportunities for improvement. Leaders must encourage and develop a culture of open, two-way communication and be prepared to be challenged if they don’t practice what they preach.
3. Reporting results in no tangible action
Either there is a failure to result in learning and development (as illustrated above) or reporting is seen to result in no tangible action. This reason is possibly more detrimental to a positive safety culture and more common in our experience. All too often, we are told that people don’t bother reporting as they never see anything come out of it.
At one organisation we asked what happened to ideas that were generated or issues that were reported. The employee pointed to a suggestions/issues box. It was overflowing and had apparently been that way for months, becoming a laughing matter around the workplace.
If you are genuinely seeking to improve your safety culture, you must invest in following up safety concerns and demonstrating that issues are being addressed. Likewise, it’s important to acknowledge the time and effort people put into improving the workplace.
4. Feedback on reported incidents is not provided
They say any feedback is good feedback. Unfortunately, in practice, we find that all too often, feedback on reported incidents is not provided to the frontline. For the individuals who are taking time to report issues and who are genuinely invested in improving safety in the organisation, not providing feedback indirectly tells them that their time is not valued, and that safety is not a priority in the organisation.
Furthermore, by failing to provide feedback, leaders may be reinforcing the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality that exists widely, even today. As a leader, it is your responsibility to break down these barriers, and be transparent in providing open communication and honest feedback to your frontline.
5. Negative repercussions for reporting
Possibly the most detrimental of the barriers to reporting is negative repercussions for reporting safety concerns or incidents. We mentioned earlier that it generally only takes one individual to shift the culture of an organisation. As a result, it can take just one situation where a worker is punished for speaking up, to cause reporting to cease altogether. Bad news spreads like wildfire. We have seen organisations where the fear of reporting is so strong that individuals do not report anything—including incidents and injuries.
Once a culture like this is created, people usually become wary and trust erodes between differing levels of authority. This type of culture becomes very difficult to change.
So, how should leaders handle situations where disciplinary action is required after a concern or issue has been reported? Leaders should be prepared to communicate honestly with their teams to provide an explanation of what happened and why such action was required. The information should be presented in a way that focuses on the positive learning and insight gained from the incident, rather than used as a warning for others.
Does your organisation suffer from underreporting? What strategies will you put in place to encourage reporting and feedback from employees?
Sentis specialises in safety culture measurement and transformation. Regarded as leaders in practical, evidence-based applications, we use proven insights from psychology to drive substantial, lasting improvements in safety culture and performance metrics, as well as overall business impact.
*Name changed for privacy.