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MANAGING BEST PRACTICES: Too much transparency?

March 1, 2007
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What EHS info is your company broadcasting to the public?


Does it make you nervous when a stranger knows more about you or your business than you think they should? In today’s information age there are very few secrets. It’s best to anticipate what questions you might have to respond to, coming from sources that might surprise you, and have a plan for communication.

Here are two recent examples of how people and organizations became nervous when too much information about them surfaced:

Flamingo Hotel Las Vegas

The ASSE held their SeminarFest at the Flamingo hotel in Las Vegas this past January. I was the instructor for the infectious disease course. Upon checking in at the hotel I asked if I could speak with someone regarding the Norovirus outbreak that the hotel experienced in 2004, which infected more than 1,200 staff and guests. I was looking to see how the hotel was addressing infectious disease concerns. The information was intended to give students a site-specific example to discuss.

The staff at the Flamingo was surprised at how much information I had about the Norovirus outbreak. I even had a copy of the checklist that the district health department provided the hotel on how to prevent and control infectious disease. And I was aware that a class-action lawsuit on this issue was in progress. The management and lawyers for the Flamingo hotel, and some ASSE staff, became nervous about how our course was going to use this information.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

In the nanotechnology course at ASSE’s 2007 SeminarFest in Las Vegas, I provided students with a letter that the director of LBNL received from the Berkeley (California) City Manager. The letter requested information about the safety of the nanoparticles being used by LBNL. Requested information included, “What are the potential impacts to the environment and community health associated with LBNL’s nanotechnology activities?”

The students were provided a copy of the letter to LBNL to demonstrate that businesses must be ready now to provide risk communication on the safety of nanomaterials. The letter showed that concerns are real, not just hypothetical. As a class exercise, students were instructed to draft possible responses to the information being sought. One student found a smart way to address the exercise; she called LBNL during the class and asked the lab how they responded to the questions. The student discovered that the lab was nervous about how she got the letter and what she was doing with it.

In the examples above, no inside sources provided us what appeared to be private information. The data was available to the public on the Internet. All someone had to do was look for it.

The amount of information on the Internet is vast and growing. With a few clicks you can find almost any information about someone else or even about you. Go ahead, do a search on yourself, if you already haven’t, or your company.

Is too much information accessible? It depends on your point of view. We’ve heard these warnings before but may not have taken the concerns as seriously as we should.

Ignorance is bliss?

In many ways ignorance is bliss. We didn’t worry about things we didn’t know about. Information is flowing quicker now and we worry more, and in some cases have decisions to make. Examples abound:
  • What if a Web site shows that your family doctor or lawyer was guilty of ethical violations? Would you still use their services?
  • The safety and health consultant you’re using has a degree from a diploma mill, and credentials from an outfit you never heard of. Do you still retain him?
  • Your local hospital ranks at the low end of preventing hospital-acquired infections.
  • Your favorite restaurant flunked its food safety inspection.
  • Your neighborhood is a favorite target among thieves.

Things you didn’t know about before are popping up. This is what the Internet brings us today and more tomorrow.

Online information

As a consultant I’m brought into many different workplaces to work on various issues. Prior to going into any new workplace I search for as much information about the worksite as I can. I’m amazed at what I find. I am also routinely amazed at how little most businesses know what’s out there on the Internet about them.

How does information get online?

This is a good question and I don’t have the full answer. Anybody can post anything to the Internet. It seems that most government documents, even including meeting minutes, are routinely posted to the Internet. OSHA or EPA reports that are sent into the government will find their way online. And you are aware that people may present online data in various ways. Pollution information about employers provided at www.scorecard.org is a good example. If you haven’t been to the scorecard before, you should pay a visit. Type your zip code in and discover the top polluters in your county, for example.

Risk communication

This act of making information about individuals and organizations instantly accessible is called transparency. Like Dr. Geller’s comments on self-confidence in his column this month (p.16), transparency is generally a good thing, but too much of it can cause problems. Transparency forces us to be better risk communicators.

But before formulating any risk communication strategy, you need to spend time finding out what information is online about EHS issues relevant to your workforce; newspaper articles, blogs, or reports about your company; or services and suppliers you are using. Be proactive. Discover what’s out there, what questions might come from an Internet savvy employee or an activist group about certain exposures or a report filed by your company.

Whatever search engine you use will provide search tips. I like using Google, but you may prefer something else. Verify any information you find online and then get your employer’s input on how potentially negative information should be addressed. Your company should have a written procedure on this issue.

Always keep your employer’s information as confidential as possible. This includes control of documents and even your comments. Do you know just how transparent your organization is to probing outsiders? Like it or not, we all must learn how to better find Internet information pertinent to our interests, and manage Internet content that can affect our credibility and/or our employer’s image and reputation.

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