Why health and safety information should be free and accessible
Some years ago, I sat in a boardroom full of health & safety professionals who were all scratching their heads, determined that there must be a better way to make safety information free and accessible for public use. Questions were fired back and forth across the table, like:
“Why can’t we have one place to go to get all the policies, best practices and legislative guidelines instead of having to reinvent the wheel?”
“How can I stay on top of all the safety information as it evolves and changes without having to be glued to my desk all day?”
“How can I spend more of my time out in the field or on job floor?”
And, finally: “Isn’t there a better way?”
On the flip side, I’ve also heard some companies say their health and safety record is a competitive advantage. Why, they ask, should they share their knowledge with the industry and risk helping to improve a competitor’s safety record?
I’ve even heard companies admit that they’re “burying the bodies” to meet the required Total Required Injury Frequency Rate (TRIFR) and keep those contracts from going to competitors.
All over the world companies big and small, associations local and national are all working to develop best practices for the health & safety industry. They’re developing onboarding, orientation and multiple levels of training and testing to make their companies and workplaces as safe as possible, not to mention so many other fascinating initiatives.
The problem is, many aren’t sharing this valuable health and safety information with each other, or the world at large. And you know what? I’m not so sure the risks of giving up that information are greater than the risks that come with less transparency, less information and less education.
Why health and safety information isn’t being shared
There are a few key reasons why health and safety information isn’t always shared freely and made available to everyone. First of all, we all know about TRIFR and how it can be used as an advantage to win more job opportunities. Asking a mildly injured employee to sit and wave a flag or perform some menial office work may keep them from becoming a recordable lost time injury and, while it may be a good way to keep those numbers respectable, it’s a practice that can come back to bite workers, contractors and everyone up the food chain.
Many companies also work hard and put a lot of time and money into developing their health and safety programs. Why should they let others piggyback off those initiatives? Why let another company improve their safety record if it could give them a competitive advantage?
In addition, there is always a risk that when we remove the controls around health and safety information, that it won’t be presented as well and that people may take some information out of context or apply it incorrectly.
Finally, the dissemination of safety information can get complicated. On top of federal rules and state plans, there are often specific rules, guidelines and best practices laid out by different companies - and even for different job sites. In other words, what’s acceptable on one job site may not be at another. This leaves safety professionals with a lot of balls to juggle - and workers with a lot of different inputs to process.
Health and safety information and education today
Companies are responsible, by law, for maintaining a safe workplace according to the OSH Act. This includes not only maintaining compliance, but educating workers on how they can hold up their end of the bargain. There are lots of great resources here, but the fact that they aren’t all free or accessible in one easy place can make dissemination more difficult than it needs to be.
Currently, most safety professionals get their information from association memberships, where some information still sits behind a paywall. To be clear, this information high quality, well-curated and well-maintained. But I also know that making this information contingent on a membership has a cost. Bigger companies take it for granted that they can afford to keep their memberships, while smaller companies wish they could fit membership costs into their budget, but may shy away from pulling the trigger.
I’m not saying paid sites need to disappear. They tend to focus on industry standards and legislation, and help companies with compliance. They even offer some free content. But I do think more content needs to come out from behind the paywall to ensure that anyone and everyone has access to these resources in the most open and efficient way possible.
For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration offers a free PDF download that’s designed to help companies establish their own health and safety program with detailed recommended practices.
It’s public resources like this that I’d like to see more of. Not just from organizations, but from all health and safety advocates.
The risks of not making health and safety information public in the future
While there are some good reasons why health and safety information isn’t freely shared and freely available, I’d argue that there are some even better reasons why it should be.
When contractors joke about “burying bodies” to keep TRIFR low, they’re being facetious. Most of them don’t like this system, or the need to work within it. But the truth is that many companies just want to meet the safety requirements and get the job done. Doing it better isn’t always of interest. The problem is that when we focus too much on metrics like TRIFR, we (perhaps inadvertently) create a system where we see all incidents - no matter how minor - as things that should never have happened. But they do. And they will. And they should be a learning opportunity. Imagine if the system was set up to allow safety professionals to talk openly and freely about incidents without repercussions. Not only would this make reporting more accurate, but it would also provide a space to look at how to prevent minor (and, by extension, possibly major) incidents in the future.
Companies also tend to keep the health and safety knowledge they build and accumulate close to their vests. And while I won’t dispute that a better health and safety record can be a competitive advantage, helping improve health and safety across the board is also a way companies can avoid shooting themselves in the foot. After all, we all know that many big companies that rely on contractors are all pulling from the same worker pool. The better educated that whole chain is, the more accidents can be prevented. Yes, those accidents might be prevented in other companies’ worksites, but they might just as easily be prevented in your own. You just don’t know.
As for taking health and safety information out of context, well, this does happen.
For example, according to a WorkSafeBC investigation, a new employee died from a 35-foot fall after his lifeline cable broke because it was not anchored properly. He was working on a steel roof and his lifeline was designed to be anchored from above, not on the low-slope roof he was standing on. The investigation determined the worker was not properly educated or trained before his actual start date on the job site, plus the company’s fall protection plan was outdated.
Had the employee had proper access to the information, who’s to say whether this might have prevented his accidental death? What if the company had been educated enough to update their fall protection plan? Was cost a determining factor to having outdated info? There’s no way of really knowing, but if the information is accessible, there’s at least a fighting chance for everyone. Plus, I doubt you’ll find anyone in the safety field who’d argue against the value of proactively training and educating people with accessible health and safety information.
According to a 2017 study of workers in France, those who had received even basic health and safety training in school were twice as likely to avoid workplace incidents than those who hadn’t. If even the most basic health and safety training has a proven beneficial effect, it’s hard to argue against putting more of it out there.
The risks are minimal - and worth it
Are there risks to making health and safety information free and accessible and creating an open space for professionals to share their knowledge? There are some. But I believe the benefits far outweigh the potential risks from every angle. Worker safety is far too important to just simply leave it stashed away on a company server, especially when the information could prevent a serious workplace incident.
Let’s all work to make preventing workplace injuries and keeping workers safe proactive rather than competitive and access open rather than restricted. Giving everyone equal opportunity to participate in a safety-first work culture may seem counterintuitive, but it’s really just a better way forward, one with plenty of opportunity - and far less potential for tragedy - for everyone involved.