On Research

The "On Research" blog has been discontinued, but Safety+Health now publishes Q&As with Journal of Safety Research contributors under that name.

Barriers to injury reporting in construction

August 14, 2013

This week I’m continuing the conversation about reasons why workers hold back from reporting injuries. Much like the Canadian study on young workers I wrote about last week, a new study from the AFL-CIO-affiliated Center for Construction Research and Training concludes that fear of losing work may cause construction workers not to report injuries.

Although a sense of powerlessness was at the root of young workers’ hesitancy to report injuries, in this study, workers cited several other reasons – from considering the injury to be minor and not wanting to be labeled a “complainer” to becoming ineligible for incentives.

Study author J. Taylor Moore, an independent safety consultant in Atlanta, was a graduate student at Colorado State University when he undertook the research as part of a larger project on creating a safety communication program.

Moore and his co-authors conducted focus groups with construction workers and used their responses to compile a list of 21 reasons why they didn’t report injuries. Next, a separate group of 135 construction workers completed a survey in which they were asked if they ever failed to report a work-related injury, and if yes, why. They chose from the 21 reasons, conveyed in statements such as “My injury was small, so I don’t need to report it.”

Of the 27 percent who said they had failed to report an injury, 72 percent indicated it was because the injury was small. Respondents were able to choose more than one reason, and other popular responses included accepting pain as part of the job, believing that home treatment would be sufficient, not being sure if the injury was from work, fearing the loss of future or current jobs, not being able to afford time off without pay to see a doctor, and not wanting to lose out on the safety incentive for no lost work time.

Workers didn’t identify the actual injury, so researchers couldn’t determine whether it was truly minor, but Moore noted an injury thought to be no big deal (such as a strain) could turn into long-term damage if untreated or further aggravated.

“That’s not good for the individual, but also it’s not beneficial for the employer either because what may have been an easy treatment or just required some time off or reassigned duty for the short-term, in the long-term those injury costs may be higher because the injury progresses to something worse,” Moore said.

His study, which was published in the International Journal of Occupational Safety and Ergonomics, recommended developing a “climate of open communication with a focus on problem-solving and learning.”

Moore said this type of environment, known as an “error management climate,” promotes sharing near misses with supervisors and co-workers. When near misses are viewed as learning experiences rather than a cause for punitive action, workers feel more comfortable talking about them.

He said supervisors need to be open, citing a study that found the act of speaking with subordinates on a daily basis – even if the conversation wasn’t about safety – helped to create a more personal relationship between supervisors and workers. That can influence workers to talk about safety because they begin to see their supervisor not as an imposing figure but someone to whom they can relate.

As important as it is for workers to see their supervisor as someone they can talk to, I think they also need to see their own value. Jim Nolan, a retired carpenter living in the St. Louis area, made this point to me during an interview for an article in the October issue of Safety+Health. Noting that construction workers too often use duct tape to cover a nail gun wound rather than seek medical treatment, he stressed that workers shouldn’t see themselves as just a piece of wood. He said, “I say, ‘Your hand and your body is worth more than this job.’” And that’s a good message for any worker who thinks his or her injury isn’t worth reporting.

The opinions expressed in "Research Spotlight" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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