It is absolutely important that employees report hazards they encounter on the job. Employees are the ones who are most intimately familiar with the details of the job site and that makes their input crucial to maintaining health and safety in the workplace. Many employees, however, are reluctant to report the dangers they encounter, for reasons ranging from fearing reprisal from their managers to simply not feeling comfortable approaching those in higher-up positions.

These employee reports are not only helpful, they are mandatory. OSHA instituted a clear set of rules for reporting workplace hazards in 2015, the Voluntary Safety and Health Program (VPP). Under the VPP, employees are required to report hazards, workplace injuries, illnesses, and deaths. All work-related deaths must be reported to OSHA within eight hours. Workplace injuries or illnesses that required hospitalizations, amputation, or loss of an eye must be reported within twenty-four hours.

This article will provide advice on helping employees overcome their reluctance to call attention to hazards by cultivating a workplace culture that encourages reporting.

Communicate and Respond

The first step is making sure that employees understand that there are consequences for failing to report hazards. These consequences could be financial penalties for themselves or their employer but the failure to report may also lead to illness, injury, or loss of life for them or their co-workers. In-service training on topics such as workplace hazards, safe procedures, and how to report a hazard is a good way to make employees aware of potential dangers in their workplace and the chain of command involved in reporting them.

Be sure to also remind your employees that reporting is neither arduous nor time consuming. This can also be achieved by in-service training: on what to report, when and how to do it, and to whom.

Next, employees need to see that their reporting results in positive action: hazards have been removed, protective gear has been updated, and dangerous workplace habits have been corrected. Be sure to take proactive steps toward work site safety as well (learn more about Proactivity in the Field). If employers and managers take positive action on hazards, employees will be encouraged to report.

However, as Katie Weatherford, regulatory policy analyst for the Center for Effective Government, notes, “too often, when workers raise concerns about health and safety hazards on the job, employers retaliate with reduced hours or dismissal, even though doing so is clearly illegal” (find out How to Refuse Unsafe Work).

Nor are these fears groundless. Since 2005, studies have shown that the number of complaints filed with OSHA from workers who claimed to have been penalized has increased by 50 percent. Over half of these were the result of reporting workplace hazards. Indeed, a veteran OSHA field inspector stated in The Pump Handle that “There’s enough retaliation that workers’ fears are well grounded.”

There is also a huge backlog of pending investigations. Realistically it may be over a year before a grievance is heard. In the interim employee morale and health and safety in the workplace all suffer.

Given these conditions, employees need clear assurance from their employers and supervisors, in word and action, that they will not be penalized for reporting an unsafe workplace incident.

Provide Incentives

Providing compensation, monetary or otherwise, to employees who take health and safety certification is a simple way to send a message that you and your company value health and safety.

Offering incentives and rewards for no-incident days may seem like a good idea, but it actually discourages reporting, since reporting an incident will lead to a loss of the reward. Instead, offer celebrations for reporting dangerous practices, malfunctioning machinery, outdated safety gear, and hazardous materials.

Recognize Positive Actions

Provide recognition of employee initiative in addressing a health and safety concern. This might include a certificate, mention in the company newsletter, or lunch with the boss.

Actions speak louder than words. If there is an incident, publicly acknowledge and commend the department or individual who reported it. Then react to the issue immediately and make employees aware of what you have done to correct the hazard. Invite feedback from the employees about the solutions you implement. This will not only ensure that you have properly dealt with the problem, but will also remind workers that they share a responsibility for the well-being of their colleagues.

Retrain Workers

Institute re-certification and retraining sessions with a focus on best practices (or if the haven't been trained yet, Invest in Employee Training). Workers who have been trained a long time ago may have forgotten some of what they learned and new strategies and materials might have been developed that could enrich their understanding of workplace health and safety. Each brief session could focus on one safety issue, like safe lifting (see our article on Back Safety & Lifting Techniques) or ensuring an uncluttered work site. The particular issues dealt with may arise from a report, an injury, or a condition observe by a supervisor or employee.

Conclusion

It's easy to underestimate employee reluctance to report hazards. Just because there is an institutional procedure in place for filing such reports doesn't mean that everyone at your company will use it when needed. To make sure that they do, you must foster a culture of reporting. By following the steps in this article, you will be well on your way to ensuring that your employees never hesitate when it comes to doing their part for health and safety in your workplace.