With new OSHA electronic incident-reporting requirements ready to go into effect later this year, the time to focus on workplace safety data collection is now.
Recently, I came across a video that went viral a couple of years ago of a worker climbing an enormous TV tower in South Dakota—to change a light bulb. Safely I might add.
If you have a fear of heights, the video recorded by a drone might be uncomfortable to watch, but I can tell you that the man appears to follow best safety practices by continuing to hook the bars above him with his carabiners as he makes his ascent to the top of the structure, which stands the equivalent of five football fields—1,500 feet—above the ground.
The video is a good reminder that there are scores of workers performing dangerous jobs every day—from miners to deep-sea fishermen and everything in between—who put their health and safety at risk at work.
However, even in what normally would be considered a safer work environment, accidents and even deaths occur as well. In one recent example, a teenager from Streator, Illinois, died while collecting samples from a rail car after he accidentally came in contact with power lines near the train tracks, according to the local Pantagraph newspaper. Overall, there were 2.9 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses reported in 2015 and 4,800 deaths, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the most recent data available.
Insurance companies in particular have a vested interest in ensuring their clients—the companies that offer their workers insurance for health, life, workers’ compensation, etc.—do everything in their power to ensure their workers stay safe at work. An injury or death can lead to five-, six- and even seven-figure insurance payouts and not to mention potential lawsuits that could hit insurers through liability insurance.
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To help keep workers safe on the job, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently released new rules for companies to track their workers’ incidents and illnesses electronically through an OSHA reporting portal. Initially, the reporting requirement for certain employers was scheduled to go into effect July 1, but a recent proposed rule in the Federal Register pushed that date back to Dec. 1. Even so, OSHA has already opened the Injury Tracking Application portal for companies with more than 250 employees or smaller firms working in industries with “historically high rates of occupational injuries and illnesses” to start tracking their work-related incidents. According to OSHA, it takes about 20 minutes to log each incident, which includes “the time for reviewing instructions, searching existing data sources, gathering and maintaining the data needed, and completing and reviewing the collection of information.”
While the filing extension should give companies a chance to catch their breath, there’s really not much time to get a compliance process in place. A recent Sphera and EHS Daily Advisor survey of more than 400 Environmental Health & Safety executives found that about half (46 percent) of respondents have begun the process of addressing the e-reporting requirements. On the other hand, 44 percent said they have not.
It’s important to note that OSHA has required safety-related recordkeeping for decades—even if OSHA recently changed course on the so-called Volks rule, which would have required companies to maintain safety records for five years rather than six months. The new part of the OSHA recordkeeping requirement is the electronic submission process, which, the agency says, will enable it to analyze safety-related data and “use its enforcement and compliance assistance resources more efficiently.”
But whether it’s at the government or corporate level, being able to analyze and preferably benchmark workplace safety data puts companies at a distinct advantage not only for keeping workers safe—which is the top priority—but also improving the company’s bottom line. When aluminum-maker Alcoa’s former CEO challenged the company to a goal of zero work-related accidents a few years ago, for instance, the company’s earnings jumped 600 percent over a five-year period and sales grew 15 percent per year. And a large component of that safety initiative was data collection.
With the amount of technology available today, especially mobile applications, companies have more tools than ever for data collection. That’s why it’s a bit surprising that only 1 out of 5 (21 percent) respondents to the Sphera-EHS survey said their workers use mobile apps to collect data on incidents. Compare that to the 46 percent who said that their employees manually type information into a web-based application, 56 percent who said their staff email or fax the information, and 74 percent who said their personnel orally report the information to an operator or supervisor.
In other words, many companies are missing a huge opportunity to collect data quickly and more accurately with mobile software for safety-related purposes.
Indeed, field workers who don’t have access to mobile technology to record events are at a disadvantage in documenting the details of an incident or near-miss. At best, they would likely have to write things down and then enter the details into a computer later or tell their supervisors when they see them in person or possibly over the phone, which could lead to a “telephone game”-like scenario where the details change as the information gets passed on. But any type of reporting delay or secondhand chronicling could compromise the usefulness and accuracy of the event data.
Being able to take pictures and notes and enter them into a database gives companies a more accurate picture of the event or safety hazard.
It should be noted that OSHA’s new e-reporting rules don’t address near-misses, but it is worth pointing out that 77 percent of the respondents to our survey said that their workers make those types of reports via verbal updates to their supervisors. Additionally, 57 percent of respondents said those near-miss records are maintained in paper form. (Note: respondents could choose more than one option here.)
On the other hand, it is encouraging that about half of those surveyed (47 percent) said they plan to use collected data for benchmarking purposes to ensure they are keeping up with the Joneses of the corporate world if you will in terms of keeping workers safe. To do that properly, companies will need more inputted data, and oral and written records are much more difficult to manage in that regard. Timely and accurate data entered into a risk-management solution will give companies the data they need to ensure their safety processes are working and where the greater risks in the organization lie so they can be addressed.
With proper solutions and systems in place, any fears of so-called “analysis paralysis” caused by managing too much data should not be a deterrent to collecting safety-related information.
A true risk-reporting culture requires two things: empowering workers to be able to speak up without fear of retaliation, which is also addressed in the new e-reporting rule, and giving employees the tools necessary to report incidents quickly and accurately. If you’ve ever tried to tell a friend a story about something disappointing—or even exciting—that happened to you the other day, you know that some of the details get lost along the way, and it’s easy to embellish or confuse facts. And the longer you wait to tell the story, the less likely it is to be accurate.
Recent research from Donna Bridge, a then-postdoctoral fellow at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and currently an assistant professor at the school, found that human memories “aren’t static” and that “if you remember something in the context of a new environment and time, or if you are even in a different mood, your memories might integrate the new information.”
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And that’s not a good thing for accuracy, especially when it comes to tracking incidents and even near-misses in the workplace.
Using OSHA’s upcoming e-reporting rules as a talking point, insurers should help lead the push for more advanced safety analytics in the workplace. Not only will this mitigate insurance carriers’ exposures, but also it will keep people out of harm’s way and ensure that companies meet the new OSHA e-reporting requirements.