Why do OHS injuries go unreported?

Having safety goal of ‘zero’ can be intimidating to employees, say experts

It certainly has a nice ring to it: “Our workplace has had zero lost-time injuries.” 

But the concept of zero — zero injuries, zero lost-time incidents, zero lost man hours — doesn’t actually promote workplace safety  the way employers intend; in fact, it creates hidden safety risks, according to Alan Quilley, president of Safety Results in Sherwood Park, Alta. 

Workplaces that heavily promote the importance of occupational health and safety are certainly to be admired and commended but, at the same time, it’s important to be aware of the safety risks, incidents, accidents and near misses that occur so they can be prevented from happening again, he says.

And too strong of a focus on “zero injuries” can unintentionally discourage employees from reporting incidents, says Quilley. 

“Fundamentally, if you wonder why humans do things, it’s because of what happens afterward — the consequences,” he says. “Humans are driven by consequences.”

Employers often have all kinds of good intentions and say they want to know whenever an employee is injured or has a near miss. That’s unquestionably good information for the employer to know so, hopefully it can do something so that doesn’t happen again, says Quilley. 

“The upside for a corporation is pretty straightforward — why wouldn’t you want to know about the bad things that happen? Because maybe then you can do things differently,” he says. 

“The problem from an employee perspective is ‘What happens when I do (report)?’”

Employees understand reporting injuries or accidents is a good thing to do but they also know there may be consequences.

“That’s where a lot of corporations go wrong — even though they intend it to be good, it’s not. They don’t take a view from the employee point of view and if they did, they would probably react differently,” says Quilley. 

“Corporations have gone out of their way to foolishly pick zero as this ultimate goal of safety, which doesn’t make any logical sense whatsoever because just because you didn’t hurt yourself, it doesn’t mean you were safe.

“We set up these goals that humans have to be perfect and never hurt ourselves, which has got nothing to do with reality.” 

When employers are working within that system and the entire goal is to have zero injuries, and employees are rewarded, bonused or incentivized on that basis, no one wants to be the one who messes up the track record, he says. 

“The next thing that happens to me is I’m the guy who ruined everyone’s bonus. Nobody wants to be that person.”

There’s also the reputational risk an employee faces if he reports an incident and co-workers react badly, says Quilley. 

“(For instance), an electrician almost electrocuted himself and he told (his employer) — as he should have. It was only his insulated pliers that actually saved his life. He was using the right piece of equipment,” he says. 

“He told people and now his co-workers are calling him ‘Sparky.’ That’s an unintended consequence. And he said to me, ‘If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t (report it).’ He’s a good electrician, he’s just a human who made a mistake. And he doesn’t want to be known as Sparky… He takes pride in what he does, and now he’s being insulted by the very people he works with.”

Another factor that can have a significant impact in discouraging reporting is when a manager or supervisor reacts negatively when receiving the report, says Quilley. 

“The other thing is I go tell my boss and he gives me a great big sigh,” he says. 

“If that’s happened to me in the past, it becomes less likely I’m going to (report) again when if I just don’t tell, nothing bad is going to happen.

“I don’t tell and my life is simpler… I don’t have to do the work that it takes, I don’t have to put up with this negative reaction.”
Employers need to do away with the entire concept of zero injuries because mistakes are going to happen and it’s of critical importance to the safety of the workplace that employees actually come forward when they do, says Quilley. 

“All of this is well-intentioned, it’s just foolishly delivered. If you want someone to tell you about (injuries and near misses), the next thing that happens to them has to be good,” he says, adding that positive consequences will likely increase the chances people will report again. 

“It’s fundamentally the ‘What happens if I do, what happens if I don’t?’ question.”

Legal consequences 
If the hidden risks and safety consequences aren’t enough to convince an employer of the importance of encouraging reporting, perhaps the legal consequences are. 

Employers can be hit with a significant fine for failing to report or discouraging reporting of workplace injuries, according to Adrian Miedema, partner at Dentons in Toronto.  

“There are serious consequences for either not reporting to both the WSIB (Workplace Safety and Insurance Board) and the Ministry of Labour — that’s an offence in and of itself that you can be charged with. And certainly for pressuring employees not to report, you can be charged with that too,” he says. 

“Both under the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, there’s a duty to report… There are pretty serious consequences and there are a bunch of cases where employers have actually been charged with failing to report.”

One Ontario employer, for example, was fined $20,000 in 2014 after HR staff and a supervisor failed to immediately report an injury to the provincial Ministry of Labour. The worker in that case had suffered a broken bone, which is considered a “critical injury” under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. In addition to the fine, the employer had to pay a 25 per cent victim fine surcharge, bringing the total cost of the incident to $25,000. 

Also in 2014, an Ontario employer was fined $75,000 for failing to report an occupational disease claim, said Miedema.

Employers can also get into trouble for pressuring workers not to report, he says. 

“If you think about the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, if somebody’s injured at work and they’re pressured not to report, that’s an offence,” he says. 

In fact, there is a specific provision in that act that says employers cannot pressure them not to report. Section 22.1(1) of Ontario’s act, which was just added to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act last year, makes it an offence to commit “claim suppression.”  
The fine can be up to $500,000 plus an administrative penalty, says Miedema. 

There is just no reason for employers to avoid reporting. 

“Quite apart from the fact that we always advise people to comply with the law, that kind of thing catches up to employers eventually. And if you get caught not reporting and, in particular, discouraging employees from reporting… then the consequences I think are really serious,” he says. 

“No judge is going to be sympathetic to an employer that’s found to have pressured employees to not report workplace injuries.

“It’ll catch up to you eventually and the consequences will be a lot more serious if you don’t report.”

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