Industrial Safety: Factors that Present Barriers to Reporting Workplace Incidents and Contribute to Cultures of Non-Reporting
IN THIS ARTICLE
This research study explores factors that present barriers to reporting workplace incidents and contribute to cultures of non-report. The research purpose was to explore human, workplace/organizational, and external factors identified by industrial sector personnel working in the oil and gas industry in Northern Alberta, Canada to build an understanding of why cultures of non-report develop as a subculture. The participant organization was a multinational that provides construction and technical services on industrial facilities. Data was collected through one-on-one, semi-structured interviews with 19 participants, and results were analyzed thematically. The research findings indicate five key factors present barriers to reporting workplace incidents and contribute to cultures of non-report: workplace pressures related to safety performance metrics; undue reporting policies, processes, and procedures; mistrust between workers and their supervisory/management and safety personnel; fear of repercussions; and workplace environments that negatively impact self-image and social perceptions. These barriers can be addressed by viewing the problem as a complex, systemic issue and co-developing solutions that incorporate people-centered safety into organizational culture.
Although safety practices are implemented with the notable goal of keeping employees and work sites safe, the evolution of safety culture has created an environment where not all employees feel psychologically safe to report workplace incidents, characterized by a culture of non-report. Stories of unreported injuries and industry’s overreliance on lagging indicators and measuring reporting as a cultural variable, such as zero-incident targets, prompted this study. The research purpose was to explore human, workplace/organizational, and external factors identified by industrial sector personnel working in the oil and gas industry in Northern Alberta, Canada to build an understanding of why cultures of non-report develop as a subculture.Addressing how decision-making around reporting practices is influenced, this paper contends cultures of non-report form from: (1) a deficiency of humanistic components and the human side of safety, which results when safety performance metrics are valued over human safety, and (2) attitude formation, aligning with Schein’s (1992/2010) three levels/processes that precede attitude formation (artifacts, espoused beliefs and values, and basic underlying assumptions). When applied to safety culture, manifestations that precede attitude formation can be seen as the following: artifacts as the outer layer, espoused values/attitudes as the middle layer, and basic assumptions as the core (Guldenmund, 2000). These three levels/processes contribute to attitude formation related to cultures of non-report.
Although there have been many safety-related studies, from research on safety cultures to statistical analysis of accidents, there is a need for research on non-reporting pressures and practices that address human safety as a compared value to safety performance metrics. Looking beyond physical injuries, this includes exploring factors such as work-related stress, extended work hours impacting work-life balance, burnout, workplace bullying/ostracism, and pressures associated with contract safety performance, to name a few. As such, this paper explores the concept of a culture of non-report as a complex, systemic issue resulting as an environmental by-product from pressures associated with industry and organizationally-driven safety performance metrics.
Safety culture inception dates back to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Pripyat, Ukraine (Pidgeon, 1991). From this incident, awareness of the need to improve safety practices arose on a global scale. The term safety culture was established by the International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group (INSAG) post-Chernobyl, calling to action the placement of site safety and authority on the senior members of a nuclear facility (Sorensen, 2002). Since then, the adoption of safety culture expanded to other industries, including being integrated as a part of organizational culture through espoused values, management support, employee training, safety programs, policies, processes, and procedures. This assignment of safety responsibility has carried over to the energy industry, where site/project managers and other leadership are ultimately responsible for the workforce’s safety.
As safety cultures continued to evolve, this evolution was processed differently from organization to organization and individual to individual. As such, varied industry understanding of safety culture emerged. Recognizing that subcultures create an absence of safety culture cohesion (Gadd & Collins, 2002), the term safety culture as used in this study refers to an adapted version of Zhang et al.’s (2002) safety culture definition, as follows:
The enduring value and priority placed on worker and public safety [, with the intent to invite and enable participation] by everyone in every group at every level of an organization. It refers to the extent to which individuals and groups will commit to personal responsibility for safety; act to preserve, enhance and communicate safety concerns; strive to actively learn, adapt and modify (both individual and organizational) behaviour based on lessons learned from mistakes; and be rewarded in a manner that is consistent with these values. (p. 3)
Today, multinational industrial organizations often strive to create a generative culture, typically characterized by a shared mission and ability to take an inquiry approach to progress past reactive fixing to proactively finding the root causes of problems (Westrum, 2004). Commonly expressed within the industry as, “HSE is how we do business round here” (Parker et al., 2006, p. 555), safety governance is often integrated into organizational culture through a signature safety program. These safety programs follow a triangular design framework of three organizational culture variables: decentralization (autonomy), centralization (control), and teamwork (cooperation) (Keidel, 1990). Implementation and adoption of a safety program and respective culture generally balance a bottom-up ‘pull’ and top-down ‘push’ strategy that encompasses engagement from personnel at all organizational levels (Hudson, 2007). This strategy involves marketing the safety program and respective culture, attempting to pull/attract employees to engage rather than push/force them to accept a cultural change.
Both management and personnel generally want a safe place to work. This want is the foundation for establishing effective safety programs, which have become a key component of organizations’ cultures. A review on safety programs of five construction companies in the United States, Australia, and Hong Kong presented seven common elements: (1) focused on human factors; (2) supported the belief that all injuries and incidents are preventable, and therefore, unacceptable; (3) had strong leadership commitment to safety and supporting the program; (4) focused on engaging all stakeholders on safety concerns; (5) included safety risk management systems that were utilized to identify, evaluate, and then respond to safety hazards/risks; (6) had a presence of safety authority and accountability, with safe behaviours rewarded; and (7) supported by a safety knowledge database where lessons learned data was stored (Zou, 2011). Although many safety programs encompass these elements, non-reporting practices are still present, which contends that safety programs do not always provide employees with a feeling of psychological safety when deciding to report an incident.
As is widely known, incidents involve organizational factors, workplace factors, and unsafe acts. Yet, management often attributes safety incidents to unsafe acts, not accounting for the work environment that contributed to the worker engaging in risky behaviour (McKinnon, 2013). When management attributes safety incidents to unsafe acts without accounting for the work environment, leadership personnel communicate values to their employees that suggest safety performance metrics are valued over human safety. Although incidents occur because of a failure in the system, there continues to be a tendency to blame the worker (McKinnon, 2013). Factors that may not be evaluated by management include inadequate training/supervision, tight project schedules and budgets, extended work hours that result in sleep deprivation (Lockley, et al., 2007), and work-life balance stress caused by shift work, to name a few. Further complexities are added when injury-free project awards and monetary bonuses are tied to contract safety performance if a system values zero-incident targets. Safety performance bonuses may encourage workers to not report or minimize injuries for their benefit or when safety performance bonuses are tied to team performance (McKinnon, 2013). As such, a worker’s decision to report an incident is not as straightforward as one might think.
Multiple factors influence the reporting decision. Factors that contribute to a positive climate where some individuals feel motivated to report incidents include:
As such, a positive safety climate addresses the tendency to blame the worker by encompassing feelings of trust and motivation amongst personnel, making the practice of reporting less threatening from the standpoint of the employee. O’toole (2002) asserts that “a positive safety climate is supported by: treating accident incidents as system problems, not opportunities to fix blame; and treating employees as thinking, knowledgeable, and important players whose opinions and suggestions are solicited and frequently acted upon” (p. 235). Furthermore, the results of an employee perceptions survey conducted amongst 1,414 employees of a large ready-mix concrete company in the Southwestern region of the United States concluded employees perceived that personnel involvement and commitment was the most influential on safety culture, with a positive pioneer average of 84.6 percent (O'toole, 2002). Therefore, employee perceptions are imperative in understanding what factors influence an individual’s decision to report or not report an incident.
Considering individual subjectivity and different degrees of influencing factors that vary from organization to organization, it is important to understand to what degree personnel may be impacted by non-reporting pressures in the workplace. A study that engaged 1,155 union carpenters in Washington determined that the majority of participants (>75 percent) felt comfortable/safe reporting work-related incidents/injuries to their assigned supervisor (Lipscomb et al., 2015). Although this statistic supports considerable reporting rates, it also demonstrates over 20 percent of the workforce did not feel comfortable/safe to report work-related incidents/injuries. Furthermore, nearly half of the participants indicated they thought it was better not to report minor injuries and felt pressure to use their private insurance for work-related injuries treatment (Lipscomb et al., 2015). This study provides evidence of the under-reporting of work-related incidents/injuries, particularly those classified as minor incidents. This study also provides evidence that fear of retribution and repercussions are present, warranting further exploration into contributing factors.
Oil and Gas Industry Context in Alberta, Canada
Industrial organizations in Canada measure and evaluate safety performance in accordance with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recordkeeping and reporting requirements. It is common practice for site owners/operators to inquire about an organization’s Total Recordable Incident Rate (TRIR) and other incident rates (e.g., fatalities, days away from work, first aids, etc.) when they solicit an Expression of Interest (EOI), a Request for Information (RFI), or a Request for Proposal (RFP) from competing contractors in a bidders’ evaluation process for a project opportunity. If an organization’s TRIR is above the industry standard, it is unlikely a company will be awarded work. Moreover, an organization’s TRIR plays a critical role in a company’s ability to preserve its reputation, maintain and win future work, and succeed in the industry. As such, TRIR is closely tied to a company’s survival in the oil and gas industry and other industrial sectors in Alberta.
Designed to contextualize the gap between safety performance metrics and human safety, this research followed an exploratory approach to study factors that present barriers to reporting workplace incidents and contribute to cultures of non-report. The data discussed in this paper was gathered by conducting semi-structured interviews with participants working for the participant organization, a multinational that provides construction and technical services on an oil sands site belonging to a synthetic crude oil producer in Northern Alberta, Canada. The methodology and materials used for this study were reviewed and approved by Royal Roads University, including an ethical review for research involving humans.
The participant organization was a multinational that provides engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) services in Canada and various international locations. The organization has espoused company-wide safety values, including a reputable health, safety, and environment (HSE) program and system with partnered policies, processes, and procedures. At the time of the study, the participant organization had been providing contracted construction and technical services on the aforementioned oil sands site for over 40 years, with approximately 450 personnel working for them on the respective site. Overall, the site had approximately 6,000 people working on it at the time of interviews, representing a combination of numerous contracted personnel and organizations, as well as personnel who work directly for the site owner/operator.
Individual perceptions are reflected in employees’ behaviour, organizational commitment, and responsibility of actions (Cox & Cheyne, 2000). As such, all personnel working for the participant organization on this site were invited, if interested, to voluntarily participate in the study and share their perceptions on human, workplace/organizational, and external factors that contribute to non-reporting pressures and practices. Staff/direct hires and contractors/building trades union workers were invited to participate in the same study due to the unique nature of the oil sands, where contractors and building trades union workers: (1) often have longer involvement with a particular site than staff and direct hires, and (2) are the majority of the field population.
Demonstrating effectiveness for employee perception-centered research (Roelofs et al., 2011), a qualitative approach was taken for this study. In addition, a qualitative approach was taken to ensure results would not be limited by a researcher bias based on previous observations made of non-reporting pressures and practices. The qualitative approach enabled participants to discuss factors they provided, versus weighting factors that were identified for them. Data was collected through one-on-one, semi-structured interviews with 19 participants. The semi-structured interviews included 20 questions, and some participants were asked additional questions based on the responses they shared. Due to the remote location, travel was required to the site in order to conduct interviews with the participants. Although interviewing participants off-site or remotely was offered, this option was not requested. (This study was completed before the COVID-19 pandemic and remote interviews becoming more widely used.)
All interviews were recorded with permission and transcribed for analysis. The study utilized thematic analysis, a qualitative analysis approach used for narrative analysis research to identify and categorize commonalities and themes from raw data (Riessman, 2004). The commonalities and themes were then viewed alongside:
(1) the study’s prediction that a relationship exists between the presence of a culture of non-report and a deficiency of humanistic components and the human side of safety, which results when safety performance metrics are valued over human safety, and
(2) the theoretical lens introduced by Schein’s (1992/2010) three levels/processes that precede attitude formation (artifacts, espoused beliefs and values, and basic underlying assumptions).
Participants’ work history with the participant organization ranged from three months to 16 years, with 68.4 percent of participants working over two years for the organization. As per the nature of projects in the oil sands that require contractor organizations to ramp up workforces for short durations to support particular project scopes, this percentile is considered normal due to the large number of contract workers who are brought on through the building trades/labour unions. Participants included labourers, foremen, and supervisors, as well as site safety and management personnel. Collectively, the participants reflected a representative sample of the participant organization’s workforce on the respective site. Participants identified their length of experience working in construction and/or technical services ranging from one year to 35 years, with 84.2 percent of participants identifying they had over seven years of experience. Of the participants, 94.7 percent (18 of the 19) worked primarily in the oil and gas industry at the time of the interviews. Some personnel had only worked on the one oil sands site, and some participants had worked on other oil and gas sites in Northern Alberta or in Eastern Canada. As such, the information shared by participants was not solely specific to the participant organization and included observations of other contractors on the same site, as well as experiences on other work sites. Table 1 in the Appendix summarizes the participant demographics.
Human, Workplace/Organizational, and External Factors
The data provided by participants comprised of perceptions and insights obtained through their industry observations and experiences. The findings indicate five key factors present barriers to reporting workplace incidents and contribute to cultures of non-report: workplace pressures related to safety performance metrics; undue reporting policies, processes, and procedures; mistrust between workers and their supervisory/management and safety personnel; fear of repercussions; and workplace environments that negatively impact self-image and social perceptions.
Workplace Pressures Related to Safety Performance Metrics
Some participants had only ever had positive experiences where reporting was always encouraged and no feelings of apprehension were experienced, whereas others had experienced non-reporting pressures related to safety performance metrics. As shown in Appendix 1, there are various pressures personnel face related to safety performance metrics, including:
Undue Reporting Policies, Processes, and Procedures
Investigatory procedures established by organizations were identified as a reason why some personnel avoid reporting incidents. As identified by participants and shown in Appendix 2, investigatory procedures can involve extensive paperwork, a lengthy interviewing process with multiple follow-up meetings, and the feeling of having a “target on your back.” According to some participants, high turnover rates in the industry with large numbers of short-term personnel appears to be a factor of consideration when contractor organizations and site owners/operators establish safety policies, processes, and procedures. For example, alcohol and drug testing is not always addressed on a case-by-case basis; some organizations will test everyone on the immediate crew when a safety incident occurs, even if some of the crew members were not involved in the incident (e.g., on a break, working on a different task, etc.). Some organizations also require mandatory drug and alcohol tests for minor incidents (e.g., an individual bumping his/her/their head on a piece of equipment).
As discussed by some participants, safety observation forms are used as artifacts on sites to report incidents or other safety-related information. These forms can be filled out anonymously or with personal identification associated with them. Some participants felt confidentiality or de-identification from reporting would increase reporting practices, particularly for minor incidents and near misses. However, other participants disclosed they had no concerns in relation to anonymity and reporting. Further, some participants felt anonymity was problematic because it creates a greater chance that the incident will not be understood correctly, versus discussing the incident in-depth and determining solutions for the problem. Moreover, the importance of anonymity for encouraging reporting practices is subjective.
In relation to post-incident report feedback, the majority of participants appreciated receiving feedback and found it helpful. As shown in Appendix 3, participants identified feedback is most helpful when it is:
Feedback was delivered in various ways. Artifacts that were identified by participants to provide this feedback to the reporting workforce included safety meetings, daily crew meetings, safety campaigns, and safety posters. Feedback that only informs personnel to not repeat an unsafe act was considered unhelpful feedback. Participants expressed appreciation when supervisory/management and safety personnel demonstrated that the safety concerns that led to an incident were being addressed. Some participants also expressed they wanted to be provided with confirmation that there would be a thorough investigation of the incident, versus immediate grounds for dismissal without due diligence inquiry to determine the incident’s root cause.
Mistrust Between Workers and Their Supervisory/Management and Safety Personnel
Participants identified that supervisory/management and safety personnel play a key role in supporting the reporting workforce. Mistrust creates a barrier for reporting, whereas trust supports reporting. As shown in Appendix 4, participants identified key characteristics of supervisory/management and safety personnel that contribute to the development of trust amongst personnel, including:
Fear of Repercussions
Another factor identified with non-reporting practices involved witnessing personnel being laid off or fired after reporting an incident, including minor incidents. Some participants had reported incidents and were not laid off or fired. Others had either witnessed or personally experienced being laid off or fired after reporting an incident that was or was not caused by the individual’s unsafe actions. When a worker involved in an incident has a negative experience with a company (e.g., experiences layoff or job termination), these stories are often shared with other workers, which reinforces the perception that personnel’s jobs are at risk if they do report an incident.
As illustrated in Appendix 5, personnel's perceptions are formed when they personally experience, witness, and/or hear of situations where individuals have reported incidents and then receive verbal or written warnings, are suspended without pay, laid off, or fired from a company. When observable behaviours such as these are shared as stories in the industry, witnessed, or experienced by an individual, fear associated with reporting can develop. This perception can make some people feel as though all reported incidents will result in job termination or layoff, which exacerbates the fear of reporting. However, personnel do not always know the full story of why a worker is laid off or fired post-incident/report (e.g., they reported late or knowingly engaged in an unsafe act, such as not using a harness for a job that required one). As one of the participants disclosed, the individual had reported incidents throughout the worker’s career and had never been fired. This example demonstrates that this perception of reporting resulting in job termination or layoff is not true in all cases.
In cases where individuals had a negative reporting experience, fear of repercussions and the observable behaviours associated with this emotion were identified by participants. Words and phrases were used by various participants to express feelings of uneasiness/discomfort concerning reporting practices and the tendency to blame the worker. As demonstrated in Appendix 5, words/phrases (such as “fear,” “finger pointing,” “target on your back,” “visibly scared,” “if the punishment fit the crime better,” “left the room crying,” “some companies will frown upon a worker that do report things,” “you get nervous to report,” and “scared to lose their jobs or other repercussions”) demonstrate a fear of reporting and potential repercussions. Words such are “crying,” “scared,” “nervous,” and “punishment” convey observable behaviours that reflect feelings of uneasiness, and even psychological endangerment, amongst some individuals. These feelings of discomfort represent attitude formation related to reporting practices, which are then demonstrated as a fear of repercussions. To avoid anticipated repercussions caused by the industry perception that reporting will result in job termination or layoff, reporting of incidents is sometimes avoided, particularly in the case of minor incidents.
Workplace Environments that Negatively Impact Self-image and Social Perceptions
In addition to non-reporting pressures related to safety performance, self-image and social perceptions can be negatively impacted by bullying and ostracism on job sites. Pressures of self-image preservation, social perceptions, bullying, and ostracism identified by participants are shown in Appendix 6. Incidents where individuals are picked on, teased, bullied, and/or ostracised sometimes go unreported. In another instance, a case of bullying was reported by a participant, and the perpetrator did not experience repercussions. As such, acts of bullying/ostracism are not always addressed, and in turn, individuals sometimes feel discouraged to report acts that threaten their personal safety and workplace environment. This can have significant impacts on a person’s mental health. According to one participant, a bullying incident contributed to a worker dying by suicide.
Addressing Workplace Pressures Related to Safety Performance Metrics
Safety performance metrics will continue to play an important role in industrial sectors, and these metrics have the potential to better support human safety when viewed as a complex, systemic issue that is influenced by the industry, site owners/operators, contractor organizations, and individuals. For example, when contracts are tied to safety performance metrics, a site owner/operator puts pressure on the contractor organizations working for them, requiring them to maintain good safety performance/reduce their number of safety incidents to protect the continuation of current project contracts, as well as the award of additional contracts for future projects. These actions of site owners/operators can be tied to the basic underlying assumption that if they put measures in place to control the safety outcomes of contractor organizations, fewer incidents will occur. Contractor organizations respond to this requirement by leveraging their supervisory/management and safety personnel to maintain good safety performance/reduce their number of safety incidents. Supervisory/management and safety personnel of the respective contractor organization then discuss TRIR with their teams and the need to maintain good safety performance/reduce the number of safety incidents. Moreover, espoused safety values and beliefs are communicated to personnel and influence attitude formation when organizations communicate the importance of safety performance metrics through its safety program, policies, processes, and procedures. Personnel then talk about workplace pressures and observations they have made related to safety performance metrics with their coworkers and other industry professionals.
Through these conversations, some personnel encourage reporting. However, some personnel discourage reporting and share stories of times where reporting an incident resulted in repercussions, such as layoffs or job terminations of one or more workers, contractor organizations receiving temporary work suspensions, or project contracts terminated indefinitely. These stories communicate espoused values and beliefs that influence others’ reporting practices through the observable behaviours (intangible artifacts) of either reporting or not reporting. As a result of attitude formation, the individual worker’s decision to report or not report an incident is influenced by pressures from the site owner/operator, supervisory/management and safety personnel of the contractor organization, coworkers, and other industry professionals. These workplace pressures impact engagement, which in turn impacts the worker’s attitude concerning safety, reporting, and personal commitment to employee retention with his/her/their employer. Further, these workplace pressures can have a negative impact on cognitive bias and lead to distorted decision-making, which in turn can lead to a greater risk of unfavourable incidents (Murata et al., 2015). When site owners/operators and contractor organizations move away from processing information through bureaucratic tendencies (e.g., seeking to prescribe fault), organizations can create generative workplace environments that support people-centered safety. This starts by involving personnel as knowledge contributors and seeking to understand and address the systemic factors.
Heinrich’s 1931 Safety Triangle/Pyramid Theory and Its Impact on Reporting
Despite advances in safety research that disprove accident proneness is a simple cause and effect relationship, some organizations are still using Heinrich’s 1931 safety triangle/pyramid theory as a guide to anticipate when a major injury or fatality will occur. The implication of Heinrich’s safety triangle/pyramid theory is that it tries to propose standard ratio numbers, stating that in the case of 330 accidents, 300 will not cause an injury, 29 will result in a minor injury, and one incident will result in a major injury/fatality (Heinrich, 1931). Heinrich’s safety triangle/pyramid is an artifact that can become converted to an espoused organizational value/belief when it is used by organizations as a guide to determine when a major injury or fatality will occur. Many organizations have adopted this safety triangle/pyramid in an attempt to put ratio numbers to Heinrich’s proposed outcomes. When used as an espoused value/belief by organizations, a basic underlying assumption appears to develop amongst some personnel that suggests if a worker is involved in a minor incident(s), the worker is conducting his/her/their work in an unsafe manner and is more likely to be the cause of a serious incident in the future. When this thinking is communicated to workers by supervisory/management and safety personnel as an espoused value/belief, it becomes a widely-adopted basic underlying assumption that influences personnel’s perception of incident occurrence and reporting in the industry. As a result, Heinrich’s safety triangle/pyramid theory can negatively impact attitude formation related to reporting practices, including overlooking the importance of encouraging reporting of minor incidents to determine and learn from incident causes, develop solutions, and prevent incident reoccurrence. As such, it is recommended that organizations stop using Heinrich’s safety triangle/pyramid.
Importance of Appropriate Reporting Policies, Processes, and Procedures for Encouraging Reporting
There are different opinions on how reporting is best handled, particularly for minor incidents. Some individuals do report minor incidents, whereas others do not report for various reasons, such as paperwork, lengthy investigations, mandatory drug and alcohol testing, desire to handle the incident on their own, experiences of being picked on by coworkers, and concern that an accumulation of reported minor incidents will negatively impact an organization’s contract safety performance record. These factors, which represent the complexity and outcomes of reporting policies, processes, and procedures, influence attitude formation related to reporting practices. As one participant stated: “I don’t report a lot of stuff because I don’t want to affect the stats in one way, but that’s actually low on my list; it’s more so I can handle myself.” This quote summarizes two key points that have been common themes throughout the study’s findings: (1) some incidents are not reported because individuals know reporting can result in negative implications for a project contract, and (2) there is a greater tendency to not report minor incidents that are easier to handle by the individual worker, versus going through the reporting processes and procedures. This second item highlights the importance of appropriate, right-sized reporting processes and procedures that are different for a: (1) significant injury, (2) minor incident, and (3) pre-existing injury.
Although paperwork is mandatory for all incidents, organizations can look for ways to simplify the reporting and investigation processes and procedures, particularly for minor incidents. Reporting minor incidents and near misses should also be encouraged by site owners/operators and contractor organizations, with positive reinforcement from supervisors. In addition, encouraging personnel to report minor incidents and near misses can help those experiencing fears of reporting become familiar with the reporting and investigatory process through a non-threatening encounter. If more minor incidents are reported, it is more likely that the incident causes will be addressed, solutions will be co-created with frontline workers, and future reoccurrences will be prevented.
Supervisory/Management and Safety Personnel’s Role in Supporting Reporting Practices
The participant interviews demonstrate the need for supervisory/management and safety personnel to create an environment of trust through effective leadership styles and supportive verbal and non-verbal communication. This includes the need for supervisory/management and safety personnel to assure workers that the purpose of reporting incidents is to prevent future occurrences. This reassurance addresses the basic underlying assumption that reporting an incident will result in job termination or layoff. Management’s role in developing a strong workplace safety culture is a well-researched concept (see Gadd & Collins, 2002). However, participants also highlighted the importance of their relationship with the site safety team to support a culture that encouraged reporting. Observing safety personnel engaged in the field and receiving post-incident feedback from the safety team were identified as factors that support the development of a trusting relationship between workers and their site safety personnel. Furthermore, safety personnel that coached and mentored personnel in the field on safe work practices supported the development of trust between field personnel and safety personnel, versus taking an auditing approach where the safety personnel monitored work practices in the field and reprimanded personnel.
As per the results section, participants identified the following key traits that should be demonstrated by supervisory/management and safety personnel for developing trusting relationships and encouraging reporting:
Characteristics such as these observable behaviours (intangible artifacts) communicate personal value and respect to workers, influencing attitude formation related to reporting practices. Through a relationship centered on respect and personal value, workers are able to develop a basic underlying assumption that they can trust their supervisory/management and safety personnel. Supervisory/management and safety personnel with these characteristics support the reporting workforce by creating a culture that places value on the human side of safety and humanistic components. Moreover, trusting relationships between workers and their supervisory/management and safety personnel are vital for supporting reporting practices and the development of people-centered safety.
On the other hand, misalignment between investigatory/disciplinary actions and incident severity, as well as misalignment between espoused and enacted safety values, contributes to the development of distrust. The data collected confirms traditional management styles that are hierarchical and deliver controlling messages to personnel do not support the reporting workforce. While hiring for these positions, organizations should consider personality dynamics, including being a trusting leader. Organizations should also provide training to supervisory/management and safety personnel to effectively communicate with personnel and develop work environments that are psychologically safe and encourage reporting.
Addressing Fear of Repercussions
The way a company handles incident investigations contributes to the absence or presence of fear of repercussions amongst personnel. There needs to be a balance where both the personnel and organization are considered. To address the fear of repercussions, organizations need to be committed to investigating the overall environment and not just the worker’s actions. To encourage reporting, efforts should be made by site owners/operators and contractor organizations to assess both situational factors and unsafe acts to avoid the tendency to blame the worker. After all, safety incidents involve organizational factors, local workplace factors, and unsafe acts (Reason, 1997). In addition to effective reporting procedures and an openness to hearing an employee/team's story about an incident, language also plays an important role within the reporting workforce (Heraghty et al., 2018). Use of calm and inviting language by supervisory/management and safety personnel helps people overcome uneasiness, and even psychological endangerment, while reporting.
In cases where individuals are laid off or fired after reporting an incident, both coworkers and those directly impacted by the repercussions take note if the organization’s enacted reporting values do not align with their espoused reporting values. Misalignment between an organization’s espoused reporting values and enacted reporting values can cause individuals to distrust the organization, developing a basic underlying assumption that reporting incidents can lead to the same repercussions for themselves. This is another example of how industry observations and experiences influence attitude formation related to reporting practices. As such, fear of repercussions are developed amongst some personnel. This perception is accurate for some incidents/injuries but not all, and for some organizations but not all. To address this perception, organizations need to reassure personnel that the situation will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis with a fair investigation of all factors, assessing errors in the system to prevent future reoccurrences (e.g., human, workplace/organizational, and external factors). This in turn helps employees overcome a fear of repercussions. In line with employee voice theory, employee silence can be seen as a response to perceived risks associated with speaking up (Bringsfield, 2012). As stewards of safety in the industry, contractor organizations and site owners/operators alike need to acknowledge the existence of fear of repercussions and the barrier it presents to employee silence and reporting practices. To overcome this barrier, espoused values and enacted values must be aligned. Organizations that value reporting, support fair investigations, and communicate these values to their personnel help remove reporting barriers related to fear of repercussions.
Importance of Positive Workplace Environments
Self-image, social perceptions, bullying, and ostracism are factors that impact workplace environments across public and private sectors, including oil sands sites in Northern Alberta. Self-image preservation can be seen as a basic underlying assumption of how an individual feels one must maintain his/her/their image. Social perceptions can be seen as observable behaviours, as well as espoused values and beliefs, that are upheld by a group of people. These social perceptions form part of an individual’s work community and influence an individual’s self-image. As such, an individual’s coworkers, site-wide personnel working for other organizations, and industry professionals working on other sites in the area contribute to social perceptions on job sites.
Unfortunately, acts of bullying and ostracism on sites are not always reported because individuals feel the situation will not improve or become worse. This is an example of encapsulation, where personnel are isolated so that the report is not heard by the right people or at all. This is typically associated with the response of a bureaucratic work environment (Westrum, 2004). Bullying on work sites creates a particularly dangerous work environment because personnel who are bullied will be in altered mindset when they execute their work duties, which could impact the likelihood of an incident occurring. Work environments that negatively impact self-image and social perceptions have harmful effects on attitude formation and the overall well-being of employees. In the case of the suicide disclosed by one of the participants, the harm caused to mental health was so significant it resulted in the loss of life of a coworker.
Positive workplace environments are critical in supporting mental health, employee well-being, and retention. When self-image preservation is threatened and social perceptions are negatively impacted, an employee’s commitment to an organization becomes decreased because the environment does not provide a climate of psychological safety. Site owners/operators and contractor organizations need to be aware of and address bullying and ostracism on worksites to provide safe work environments for personnel. As a first step, workplace policies and campaigns can be implemented on sites to help address this problem, such as a zero-tolerance harassment policy and campaigns to encourage personnel to come forward and report bullying incidents. To assess what degree bullying and ostracism are taking place on oil and gas sites in Alberta, a follow-up study that includes multiple site locations and a large sample size would be required.
Although this paper addresses human, workplace/organizational, and external factors, individual personality psychology/psychological differences were not addressed in this study due to the subject expertise area. Due to the site's remote location, travel was required to conduct interviews with the participants. (Although interviewing participants off-site or remotely was offered to potential participants, this option was not requested.) Due to the interview location, which included the use of a private room in the participant organization’s facilities (at the discretion of the participants), it is anticipated that this arrangement might have made some personnel feel less comfortable speaking openly and freely about non-reporting practices. This arrangement might have also prevented some otherwise potential participants not to partake in the study. This study was completed before the COVID-19 pandemic and remote interviews becoming more widely used. Futures studies involving remote locations would benefit from virtual interviews.
Factors that present barriers to reporting workplace incidents and contribute to cultures of non-report include: workplace pressures related to safety performance metrics; undue reporting policies, processes, and procedures; mistrust between workers and their supervisory/management and safety personnel; fear of repercussions; and workplace environments that negatively impact self-image and social perceptions. These findings support a relationship exists between the presence of a culture of non-report and a deficiency of humanistic components and the human side of safety, which results when safety performance metrics are valued over human safety.
A culture of non-report presents itself as a subculture, which is existent because some workgroups but not others, and some personnel within the respective workgroup but not others, engage in non-reporting practices. In turn, subcultures create an absence of safety culture cohesion (Gadd & Collins, 2002). This aligns with psychological safety phenomenon at a group level. With psychological safety varying from group to group within the same organization, psychological safety is most often enabled or inhibited at the group level (Edmondson & Lei, 2014). Yet, some organizations and individuals are still under the impression that all personnel within their organization report.
To address non-reporting barriers, organizations and individuals alike should acknowledge that cultures of non-report are a complex, systemic issue (not the fault of an individual worker). These barriers can be addressed by co-developing solutions such as the ones proposed in this paper that incorporate people-centered safety into organizational culture. An applied research study that further involves field personnel, contractor organizations, and site owners/operators is recommended. Inviting personnel as valued knowledge contributors enables additional solutions to be co-created for industrial sectors and other industries.
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The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) supported this research through the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship program.