Balancing Safety With Privacy


By Phil La Duke

There are two competing trends in worker safety and they are on a collision course. On one the information age (does anyone still use that term?) has brought growing concerns that one’s medical privacy could be used to discriminate against them in the workplace, inappropriately reveal embarrassing or intimate facts, or in just in general allow nosey creeps access to medical information that is none of their business.

On the other hand, a growing number of companies continue to look for ways to personal safety. This is an important goal. Those of you who have read my work know I’m about as far from being a love and flowers safety advocate, so it should carry some weight when I say that making safety personal is valuable. I’m not ready to endorse all the schmaltzy, tug-at-the-heart-strings programs the water heads think up and push down the unwilling throats of the organization, but talking about significant human suffering in terms of rates, and dollars, and numbers doesn’t tell the whole story.

This week I had a garage door installed, the company had to come back out and fix the initial installation because…well because they’re contractors and don’t give one wit about customer satisfaction and given what they sell (garage doors) it’s not all that likely they count on a lot of repeat business. My job was delayed when my installer was injured. A company with 10 employees had 1 had a Lost Work Day Injury. Pretty high Incident Rate, and blah blah blah. Pretty routine stuff, right? Another small company with no safety management system, proper training, or any of the things larger companies take for granted. A bland story that happens every day somewhere in the world. But the worker in question broke his back. He’s looking at several expensive and painful surgeries and most likely will end up permanently disabled, at a minimum he won’t be installing garage doors anymore. His name is Scott and he’s in his mid-forties. He’s got a wife and a mortgage and just lost the crappy job that was really all he was trained to do. He can’t even do similar work. If he’s lucky he will be able to walk small distances without too much pain. He may have his employer, a husband and wife team, who let’s just say don’t exactly place a high premium on the safety of their workers. They blame Scott for the bump in their insurance premiums, and for not being more careful. Sure they like Scott and aren’t happy he got hurt, but let’s face it if he had been more careful he wouldn’t be in the mess he’s in.

The numbers don’t tell Scott’s story, and if he worked for a larger firm he might be pressured to tell his story. To talk about how can’t toss the football around with his kid anymore, how he probably won’t be attending his daughter’s graduation because sitting in a folding chair for 2 hours would just be too excruciating, and forget dancing at her wedding.

Not a day will go by without Scott reliving his accident and second-guessing the decisions he made leading up to that fateful event. He may not be particularly thrilled about become a modern day PT Barnum circus sideshow.

Even if we forget about building a campaign around Scott and his injury, I have had to have the uncomfortable conversation with business leaders about HIPPA regulations and patient privacy. A lot of leaders want to know WHO was injured and they want the names used in incident investigations, reviews of the recordables and other very reasonable and logical activities. Reasonable and logical but in many places illegal.

So how do we find a happy medium? How do we make safety personal so that we aren’t the insurance men calculating the cost of killing the construction workers to build the Brooklyn Bridge without making the employee injury a vaudeville act?

For starters:

  • Follow the law. Obeying the law is a lot easier if you educate your company on exactly what the law allows and forbids you to share, and don’t try to work around the law or get cute.
  • Use the facts you can. You don’t have to name the employee you can describe the worker without using his or her name. You don’t have to say “Millie Fitzgerald was opening a box when her box cutter slipped and cut her upper arm” you can say, “the afternoon shift receiving clerk was opening a box when the box cutter slipped and cut the worker’s arm”. Both narratives convey the same facts and neither have reduced the situation to just another number.
  • Recognize that Focusing On the Personal Side of Safety Is More Powerful Before Someone is Injured. Why do we obsess with making injuries personal and ignore the personal side of remaining uninjured. Not being injured is personal too. I just wrote a piece on making better choices and while not all injuries are the result of poor choices, poor choices disproportionately put us at risk of injury (or some other ruinous outcome). In the course of my research I learned quite a lot about why people take unreasonable risks, and I would wager to say that if more people thought about the most LIKELY consequences of there actions they would judge the risks they take as not being worth it. Think of the worst case consequences the next time you decide to run a yellow like and ask yourself. Is it worth it.