Do We Really Care About Under-Reported Injuries?

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by Phil La Duke

Over the past 12 years of writing this blog I’ve asked a lot of questions relative to what exactly we as a profession care about.  It generally raises a lot of emotional hoohah but relatively few answers. Since emotional histrionics tend to generate a lot of buzz and readers to the blog I welcome them, even though supposed mature professionals tend to call me everything but a child of God, threaten me with violence (the rich irony of a safety professional threatening me is not lost on me). But in case I am really curious about the question: “do we really care about under-reported injuries?”

Let’s start by defining “care”.  When I say I care about something, I mean that I am concerned enough to do something about it. So in that respect, I care about my health, my family’s well being, the handful of charities to which I support, worker safety (which I donate approximately 20 hours a month, outside the work week writing about) and…not much else.  I mean it’s great to say that I care about world hunger, or crime, or income inequality, or a lasting peace in the Middle East, but all that it takes to expose me as a fraud is to ask a simple question: “what are you doing about it?” The extent that one gets involved in solving a problem is the extent that one really cares about it.  So I ask you again, do we as an occupation truly care about under-reporting of injuries? If most of us are being honest we would have to say no, we don’t care.

It’s not that we’re monsters and actively want people to shut up about the injuries they’ve suffered, it’s just that we don’t want to uncover that rock.  Underreporting of injuries is the child molestation of the safety community—nobody WANTS to think or hear about it. If it’s out there we don’t want to hear about it, and while we know it’s probably out there we convince ourselves that it isn’t happening in OUR environment.

Not only do we not CARE about underreporting we deny its existence.We damned sure don’t go looking for it, and if it does exist we will find ways to deny it, down-play it, or refuse to believe it even when faced with irrefutable evidence that it exists, come to think of it maybe we are monsters. The denial of unreported injuries is so strong that when forced to deal with the fact that even when faced with the fact that while recordable/reportable injuries are ostensibly dropping worldwide, serious injury and fatalities trends are flat many of us have concluded that the precursors to serious injuries and fatalities MUST be different than those of more minor injuries. Apparently the fact that it is pretty tough to hide an amputation or a fatality shy of a macabre Weekend At Bernie’s scheme, while it is exceedingly easy to hide a minor recordable.  I know of a worker who worked three days with a hernia because he thought reporting the injury would get him in trouble.  Ultimately he collapsed in excruciating pain, causing the executives to openly question what horrible message were they were sending that would make this poor man think that his injury—which he sustained while working out of process—would get him in trouble.  It was one of those visceral events that changed those executives forever.

Even after OSHA and other regulatory agencies around the world (along with a couple of major insurance carriers,) concluded that Behavior Based Safety (BBS) tended to encourage workers not to report injuries, companies still persist not just in implementing BBS programs but also make it a requirement for their supply chain.

Some companies even blame the victim, a response not uncommon when the reality is to horrible to imagine and process, again it’s like claiming the victim of child abuse is lying about the incident—when reality is too repugnant we will choose the lie every time.

Years ago, I wrote Four Reasons, Eight Lessons: Reluctance to Report May Not Be Caused By Fear  (Facility Safety Management Magazine Apr 2, 2011) and while the focus of the article is on underreporting of near misses, I think the reasons and lessons are every bit as valid for underreporting injuries, and while underreporting of near misses may be dangerous (because it skews our view of our operational risks) underreporting of injuries is exponentially more dangerous because the risk here has already proven not only the potential for injury but the reality of this potential. Identifying the reasons for underreporting is easy, foremost among those reasons is that people don’t want to disappoint us and frankly don’t want to talk about an uncomfortable subject any more than we do. So they shut up, and we sleep better and everyone is happy.

So why we don’t care? For the same reason we don’t really care about the big problems in the world—because caring means acting and acting is dangerous.  It’s why we don’t care about child abuse, or human trafficking, or global warming, or ending war and hunger, because it’s too damned HARD.We worry that if we get involved it will get us fired and given the climate in many workplaces it just might.  It’s always easier to think of the ugliest problems as being isolated and remote; too little to worry about and not worth the effort to get involved, and besides it’s someone else’s job…except in this case it is OUR job and we will never be taken seriously as a profession until we do our jobs and show the courage to do the right thing no matter the consequences.\

On an unrelated note, a publisher contacted me about publishing a compendium of my blog articles into a honest-to-goodness book.  I will be selecting and editing my favorite works as well as contributing new material—I welcome any suggestions from you as to what should be included.  We are looking at a June publishing date (since all the material is essentially written) so watch this space for details.

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