19th March, 2024

4 Common Reasons For Underreporting In Health And Safety

Underreporting can leave you blind to health and safety issues and incidents in your business. But why do people stay silent when bad things happen? Here are common reasons for underreporting in health and safety (and how to fix them).

4 Common Reasons For Underreporting In Health And Safety header image

Is health and safety underreporting a problem in your business? When we measure health and safety performance, we will often look at accident records, near-miss reports and other reporting systems.

But what if these incidents happen, but don't get reported?

Let's imagine you had 25 health and safety reports last month, and none this month. Reports have gone down, so the workplace is safer - right? No issues, no injuries, no problems!

Well, it might mean the issues have been resolved. That's what the data tells us. But your data might be hiding the truth. And if underreporting is an issue, then your data might just be wrong.

Underreporting in health and safety is where an incident happens, but doesn't get reported. And while underreporting can make things look better in the short term, it can be a big problem in the long term.

There are many reasons why health and safety reporting is super important at work. You can warn people, stop future accidents, fix problems, see trends and identify areas for improvement.

If incidents don't get reported, you can't take action to fix the issues causing them. The issue can repeat in multiple minor accidents and near-misses until eventually, a major accident occurs. One that could have been avoided if the issue had been noticed sooner.

near miss triangle

Because those incidents are happening, whether they are reported - or not. And the accident triangle tells us that unless the issue is made safe, it's another accident waiting to happen.

But why don't people report issues, hazards or incidents? Why do people stay silent when something bad happens?

Here are 4 common reasons for underreporting in health and safety:

1. Fear

People don't fear the report itself (unless it's super long and complex - but we cover that in the next section!), but they do fear the consequences of making the report.

These could be:

Will they be blamed for the incident? Will someone else be blamed and be annoyed at them for reporting it? Will they be branded a troublemaker? Or a snitch? Are they embarrassed for breaking the rules? Are they embarrassed they got hurt? Are they worried that everyone might have to follow extra rules or have more training, and people will judge them or blame them for it?

The fact is they don't know what the consequences will be when they submit a report and that can be a fear in itself. The fear of the unknown.

worker tripping over a cable

How to remove fear from reporting

Health and safety reports shouldn't be used to find someone to blame. If people are breaking the rules, why are they breaking health and safety rules? Most people don't put themselves in danger on purpose.

It's unlikely someone caused an accident on purpose, and there are often multiple causes. Take reporting as an opportunity to understand how and why an incident happened - without placing blame.

Create a supportive and positive environment for reporting health and safety issues, and help everyone learn from mistakes.

2. Inconvenience

If your reporting process is lengthy, time-consuming and too much of an inconvenience, people will avoid it. Especially if they have other day-to-day demands and deadlines to meet at work.

But often, health and safety incidents are more likely to happen when people are rushing around trying to get things done during busy periods.

They might plan to report it, but once they finish what they are doing or when they get a chance. By the time they do, the incident is a distant memory and doesn't seem so important anymore.

person sitting at a desk

Or maybe they are so busy they never feel like they have the time to sit down and fill in a lengthy form. Maybe they don't even really understand what is expected of them.

Make reporting easy

How do you fix this problem? You make reporting easy.

You should ask for as little information as you need in the first instance - especially for non-legal reports like near-miss reporting. Once you have the initial report, you can follow up if you need more details.

person ticking a survey

3. Incentives

Have you accidentally incentivised underreporting your workplace?

Maybe you have a big "X days since the last accident" sign displayed at work.

As that number grows, so does morale. And your team might want to beat the last streak. And the manager might want to be the manager in charge when you go 500 days without an accident.

No one wants to be the person to take that number back down to zero.

zero sign

Or maybe you have two or more departments. And the department with the best health and safety performance gets a bonus each month or year.

If health and safety performance is measured on accidents and incidents, or the fewest near-misses, you're actively encouraging underreporting.

So when someone has a minor accident - for example, a trip or a cut - they don't report it. They don't want to let the team down. They don't want to be the person that broke the streak. Especially if reporting an accident or incident might mean a financial penalty because they reduce the chances of getting that bonus.

£5 cash money note

How to incentivise reporting

Instead of rewarding underreporting in health and safety, think of ways you can reward reporting.

This is a tricky one, because you don't want to reward overreporting either, and you certainly don't want to encourage accidents. And if you reward reporting near-misses, you could be flooded with lots of trivial or non-issues, and be so overwhelmed you miss the important data.

So what can you do?

Well, you can not incentivise either way. You can base any reward on scoring highly in other health and safety performance measures, like inspections.

Instead of rewarding not having an accident, reward safe behaviours, actions, and consistently following safety rules.

4. Company culture

Your health and safety culture will play a huge role in underreporting.

If your team feel encouraged to report, and involved with health and safety initiatives, they are more likely to report concerns.

person handing over paperwork and pen

But if your team feel that when they take the time to report a concern, they are ignored, and the problem doesn't get fixed, they could assume they wasted their time.

The next time something happens, they might decide not to bother reporting it.

Often, reports aren't purposefully ignored. But maybe the report goes under review, or remedial action isn't urgent or takes time and gets planned for a later date.

Communicating that you are taking action, even if it can't happen right away, can keep your team motivated to continue reporting issues.

How to change the reporting culture

If you want your team to report health and safety issues/near-misses/accidents, they need to feel the benefit. The business needs to do its part by investigating the report and taking any necessary action to make the workplace safer.

It isn't an overnight task, but you can grow a positive health and safety culture within your business.

workplace meeting

You'll need commitment from the top levels of management to show your team that you take health and safety seriously. And make sure that your team know and understand the health and safety rules they need to follow.

But most importantly, if a member of the team takes the time to report a health and safety problem, you should have someone to look into it and respond. For small issues, a quick cheap fix might be all that's needed. For bigger issues, you can let your team know the plan of action.

Underreporting might indicate that you need further training, involvement, or improvements to the reporting system or how it is received. Encourage health and safety reporting with five simple rules.

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This article was written by Emma at HASpod. Emma has over 10 years experience in health and safety and BSc (Hons) Construction Management. She is NEBOSH qualified and Tech IOSH.

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