The temptations of incidental reporting [opinion]

This article is an expression of the author's opinion about incident reporting.


Imagine there’s been an incident in your processing plant, with machinery affected by a series of unfortunate process deviations.

Alarm bells sound and inevitably, production will be affected.

What do you do? Do you switch the alarm off, hope no one heard it and try to carry on without recording the events that led to said loss of production? No, of course you don’t.

Quite apart from the fact that your job might be on the line for such a grievous neglect of duty, you wouldn’t do these things because you would want to know exactly what went on, and how you could prevent it from happening in the future: You wouldn’t want anyone else to make the same mistakes.

Unfortunately this kind of administrative behaviour is found all over the nation, and in various industries including mining, when it comes to something far more important: The physical safety of our workers.

Admittedly, the Australian mining industry has some of the most stringent administrative safety processes in the world. If you talk to mining professionals from other countries they tell you the degree of paperwork required on the job in Australia is borderline obsessive compulsive. However, there are problems with the system.

All companies in Australia keep statistics relating to the number of injuries recorded during a given time period. Often these come as an injury rate per hundreds of thousands of hours worked. This kind of lagging performance indicator certainly makes for interesting reading, but contributes far less to preventative action.

The other most popular measurement, the one we see on boards in factories and at mine site entrances, relates to Lost Time Injuries, or LTIs.

“No LTIs for 160 days,” for example, will be proudly emblazoned with stick-on numbers, ready to increase on a daily basis until that fateful day (may it never come).

But it will come. The safety culture of Zero Harm is a noble goal, but also an imaginary, impossible construct. In BHP inductions, new workers are told “You have to BELIEVE in Zero Harm,” which makes the safety officers sound alarmingly like some kind of bizarre cult, rather than the realists you expect to ensure processes are safe.

And many companies have similar, branded names and logos to demonstrate their commitment to safety on site for workers.

By placing importance on the statistics, like LTIs or injury frequency, there’s a clear motivation to keep these statistics as low as possible, and with that motivation comes temptation.

Safety staff are expected to keep things safe, and that is all good and well, but what if the collected safety statistics reflect on the performance of safety staff?

Is there a temptation to record fewer severe injuries by reclassifying those injuries to register a lower impact on periodic safety report? What happens when you have to take down the numbers on the LTI board and start again from double zeros?

Picture this: A man seriously injures his back at work, lifting an object at the instruction of his supervisor. He is taken to medical care, treated with pain medication, and returned home. Within 24 hours he gets a visit at home from the site safety officer, who is concerned about his condition and wants him to come back to work.  

The next day he visits again, but this time he says there are suitable duties for the injured worker in the office, and that it would be better to get back to work rather than push the time at home into the realm of a LTI.

This would seem to be an unprofessional impropriety which may leave the worker feeling pressured to take the hint and show up for some paper shuffling simply to keep the LTIs down, but this kind of behaviour takes place all the time – The problem is we don’t know how often because of the lack of reporting.

This particular example is a real anecdote which cannot be properly described for legal reasons, but the worker in question was pressured into returning to work despite being on prescription opiates, after the safety officer told him that another worker didn’t “co-operate” after his back injury and that things were not looking good for his future employment.

Despite there being a zero tolerance to testing positive for drugs on site, a worker who was inebriated by painkillers was allowed back on site by the site manager, who said this was fine because a doctor had prescribed the pills.

This is an example of a chronic breakdown of the administrative safety systems on site, where the motivation to avoid reporting a serious injury by getting the worker back on site was valued more by safety and management staff than the actual recovery and ongoing safety of the worker.

A recent op-ed on workplace safety reporting put forward the idea that there exists in Australian industry certain practices and behaviours aimed at undermining the reported severity of injuries, practices which result in the loss of opportunities for improvement to overall organisational safety performance.

It is possible that in some cases, such practices can create further damage to injured persons, and as a result, increase the legal exposure for the senior management and the company in question.

The temptation for occupational health and safety staff is to try to influence the type of injury recorded, or if possible, avoid recording it at all.

This can be especially so if the performance of the safety staff and responsible management on site is linked to KPIs, where the absence of incidents indicates a higher level of safety, and in turn better pay rises and annual bonuses.

The op-ed in question suggested that if one looks at the problem of reporting and classification from the standpoint of certain senior managers, it could be easier and quicker to ‘tweak’ a figure than to engage with and apply their efforts in the honest management of health and safety.

In one of the worst kind of examples, management can wilfully ignore an injured worker and fail to report the incident at all.

Such lack of reporting, or alteration to incident classifications, renders data produced by companies suspect, and makes work harder for investigators down the line.

By the same token, it does not necessarily follow that more incidents mean safety staff are not performing adequately in their job; After all, workers will make mistakes that result in injuries, regardless of how many ‘Take Fives’, hazard reduction cards or JSAs they fill out on a daily basis.

Herein lies a different problem, relating to proactive management of potential incidents.

We are all familiar with the hierarchy of controls: Elimination, Substitution, Isolation, Engineering, Administration, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

However, despite the theory taught in long induction sessions (sometimes for days in the case of BHP and Rio Tinto sites), actual practice at the work front relies extremely heavily on administration and PPE, which are supposed to be last lines of defence.

It has certainly been suggested on many sites that greater emphasis on undertaking safety paperwork can itself breed complacency among hands-on employees at the work front.

Safety statistics have become very important for the business, however.

Mining contractors frequently boast of amazing safety records: One major earthmoving contractor during the Pilbara boom claimed to have an LTI-free period running into years, which gave them a competitive advantage in the tender process.

Better safety records can also reduce the insurance premiums, which is a huge safety incentive for companies which need to reduce regular administrative running costs.

“In today’s competitive world, contracts are won or lost on safety performance, and this in itself can be a powerful motivator towards undermining the severity and work relatedness of injuries,” Prvulovic said.

“In some organisations inappropriate classification practices occur with a clear intent to embellish their safety performance.”

In a situation like the current climate of low commodity prices, we have seen the management structure of miners shift their strategic focus from investment to cost-cutting, and anecdotal reports suggest large numbers of safety staff have been cut alongside with other sectors within individual businesses.

While safety does not contribute to the immediate productive capability of a project or mine, it can be (mistakenly) seen as an area which can be whittled down without adverse effect thanks to established safety protocols and procedures.

In the long term any reduction in operating cost that is based on removing real services and staff, rather than corresponding operational shifts towards greater efficiency, will have an effect down the track.

There are companies that have served as a stark reminder of the consequences of cutting back on safety staff, decisions made by upper management to reduce costs by dropping experienced staff, and over the past year we have seen a startling jump in the fatality trend, nearly one worker every two weeks.

2015 looks even worse, with four deaths registered in only six weeks.

We’ve also seen a number of significant near-misses with major crane accidents at Roy Hill and Inpex’s Ichthys project this year.

The temptation to ‘juke the numbers’ when it comes to reporting of safety incidents may find justification in business practice, but at what cost down the line, to both the business and  individual workers?

What is clear is that it is in the best interests of employers to properly report and maintain their safety records.

With detailed reporting systems of work and operation can be checked and adjusted so that they evolve to the needs of workers on site, and reduce those numbers.

Any attempt to cover up or sweeten the story about injuries and safety incidents is short sighted, a means to short term gains that will inevitably lead to more injuries, and have potentially disastrous consequences in the long term.

To keep up to date with Australian Mining, subscribe to our free email newsletters delivered straight to your inbox. Click here.