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Fear of blame: “If I report an incident, I’ll be punished”

At a large transportation company, more than 60 percent of surveyed employees expressed concern about the consequences of reporting an injury. Upon joining field teams, new employees learn both from peers and supervisors the difference between a “true injury” and a “bruise”: the former should be reported and the latter should not. The message is clear—regardless of what these employees learned in their training sessions, it is best not to report too many incidents.

This scenario is all too common in organizations today. In attempts to keep employees from getting hurt, management establishes safety rules and sanctions for breaching them. However, one of the unintended consequences of doing so is that employees may end up underreporting noteworthy incidents for fear of being penalized. When incidents aren’t reported, management and workers lose the opportunity to learn from near misses and low-severity events.

In our experience, two actions can help reverse this mind-set. First, involving the workforce in determining how infractions are treated can help employees perceive penalties as appropriate. Second, and even more critical, is to create an environment in which employees are immediately rewarded or recognized for making safe behaviors and reporting incidents or near misses. This environment encourages reporting and gets people talking about not only unsafe acts to avoid but also desired behaviors.

Take, for example, a North American metal-making plant where safety performance was poor and employee engagement had reached an all-time low. The management team developed an intervention to break the entrenched culture of not stopping to ask for help in potentially risky situations. They gave out metallic tokens inscribed with the company logo to employees who voiced their concerns and sought assistance when they felt unsafe. At the end of their shifts, recipients could deposit the tokens into various bins marked with local charities, and the company would make a $5 contribution to the charity for each token. After a while, employees took such pride in the tokens that they started putting $5 bills in the bins so they could keep the tokens.

Jessica van Zyl
Jessica is the Editor in Chief of Sheqafrica Corporate Services (Pty)Ltd's Media Office and has 17 years experience in Technical Publishing. She worked for a number of small online magazines until 2018 when she became a Legal Researcher at Le Roux Maritz & Partners. Shortly afterwards, she was seconded to SACS as editor of Sheqafrica.co.za as part of her portfolio.