Questions: How effective is your incident reporting process?
Are you capturing 100% of incidents and near misses in your workplace? Are you sure?
What does your incident report file look like? Is it empty? If it’s empty, is that good or bad?
My guess is that most people would argue an empty file is a good thing. After all, how could a lack of incidents be bad? Isn’t the first goal of a safety program to prevent incidents from happening?
Of course…but accidents and near misses can (and do) still happen, even in the best safety programs. While an effective safety program aims to minimize incidents, it’s nearly impossible to completely eliminate them. Staying vigilant and reporting all incidents, accidents, and near misses (regardless of how minor) is a critical element of safety program oversight and maintenance. The information gained from these events guides program improvement, which ultimately prevents more serious incidents in the future.
Why an Empty Incident Report File Could be a Red Flag
A frequent response during safety audits is, “Oh, we don’t have an incident report file. We’ve never had an incident.”
It may sound like a good thing on the surface (and in some cases, it is!), but what does it really mean? In my experience, the only thing an empty incident report file says for certain is, “We’ve never had a reported incident.”
It’s common for organizations to measure their safety program’s success by the number of incident reports on file. And while this may sound like a reasonable approach, the number of incident reports on file rarely correlates to the quality of the safety program.
That said, an organization’s incident report file is one of the best indicators of overall safety culture. Not only does it provide information on past incidents, it also demonstrates how the issue was corrected (or wasn’t) and whether similar incidents have happened again.
As a safety professional, I’m just as wary of programs with “too few” reported incidents as those with “too many”, and sometimes more so. Why? Well, I often find that programs with no filed incident reports proceed to mention small chemical spills, “minor injuries”, odd smells, and other unintended consequences throughout the audit.
In these cases, the common misperception is that an incident report is only necessary (or useful) when an incident results in serious injuries. While this may align with OSHA recordkeeping standards in some cases, the most effective safety programs learn from all incidents (including near misses) and correct issues before more serious injuries occur.
Why is Incident Reporting Important?
Information is everything in safety, especially in constantly changing environments. While safety professionals make an effort to identify and anticipate all hazards, it’s impossible to control for the “unknown”. Issues often start small, only to grow and cause serious incidents if they aren’t reported and corrected.
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard things like, “Oh, I noticed that last week…” or “That almost happened to me…” when conducting a post-incident review. These subsequent (and often more serious) incidents occurred because the underlying issue wasn’t addressed. Because of this, improving reporting practices is one of the most beneficial commitments a safety program can make.
How Can You Improve Your Incident Reporting Process?
- First of all, NEVER penalize incident reporting. Penalties don’t stop accidents. In fact, a far more likely outcome is decreased reporting, which can actually increase your incident rate in the long run. Penalty systems for incident reporting are short-term solutions (at best) and often leave organizations vulnerable to more serious incidents down the road.
- Actively encourage incident reporting. While this is most commonly done during safety trainings, active incident reporting should be encouraged throughout the year. Safety committee meetings, staff meetings, and other routine gatherings of “at risk” employees serve as great opportunities to reinforce the message and share observations.
- Define what constitutes an incident vs. a near miss. Employees may not always equate “accidents” in the workplace with “incidents” or “near misses” that require reporting. By more clearly defining the reporting requirements and eliminating ambiguity, you can dramatically improve your overall reporting rate.
- Develop a shorter form for near miss reporting. An added benefit of a well-defined incident vs. near miss policy is the ability to reduce the submission burden for near misses. Time is always the most cited “barrier” to incident reporting, so implementing a user-friendly system for near misses and minor incidents can improve information sharing. The priority should always be capturing the event in real-time, so the underlying hazard can be corrected quickly.
- Consider installing an anonymous drop box for safety-related concerns. This strategy can be an effective first step for safety programs that struggle with information sharing. An example would be a program with a history of penalized reporting. In these cases, an anonymous box can help build momentum toward an open safety environment.
Are you seeking to build a stronger safety culture or improve incident reporting? If so, contact us today at firstname.lastname@example.org or spotlightsafetyinc.com to schedule a free consultation and information session.
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