I worry about how private our lives are in this electronic age. A few years ago I called the mutual fund company that handles my 401(k) retirement investments and reallocated those investments in a few minutes. The process was so easy it was scary. It was particularly scary to think that other people knew the information I gave over the phone and could, for whatever purpose, change my investments.

Earlier this year the Social Security Administration (SSA) began providing online access to individuals' Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statements, summarizing how much a person had earned every year going back as far as 1951. An uproar followed, and the SSA suspended access in April. It will bring this service back to the Internet--with some enhanced security features--by the end of the year.

Social Security numbers (SSNs) were first issued in 1936 as a means to keep track of earnings, and eventually the benefits, of people who worked in jobs covered by the SSA. More than 365 million numbers have been issued. SSNs are now required and asked for on all types of documents and records including banking and financial information, property records, credit applications, employee files, medical records, voter registration, drivers' licenses, and student identification records.

OSHA says ...

There are numerous OSHA standards that require an employee's SSN. The general information on OSHA standards and SSNs is found in 29 CFR 70a.10, "Solicitation of Social Security Numbers." All OSHA standards that involve medical or exposure records require a SSN to identify an employee. No other number is acceptable.

Most employees should not have a problem with a SSN accompanying medical records. After all, medical records have historically been treated with the utmost confidentiality. Everyone knows that an exact match between a person and a medical record is critical. Plus, medical records are mostly handled by nurses or doctors who have a professional responsibility to keep all records highly confidential. Employees probably feel their SSN is in good hands with nurses and doctors, and will not be abused.

They may feel less comfortable with a SSN accompanying exposure records, though. Exposure records are more routine, are collected more often, and are handled by people not normally viewed as medical professionals. Employees may have some cause for concern how their SSN is handled when exposure records are created and maintained.

Keep in mind that the mood of society is more distrustful of government and Big Brother in general. Most people fear that their privacy is being invaded and misused as every aspect of our life becomes more computerized. Since you might be in the position of requesting SSNs from employees, here are some suggestions to help allay possible fears:

Handle with care

SSNs are almost akin to personal property, and must be treated with respect and held in the highest confidence. You must maintain this belief even if an employee doesn't.

Learn more about the development and use of SSNs. Your knowledge on this subject may help reduce an employee's concern and make him more supportive of your needs to acquire the SSN.

Fully explain to employees where their records will be held and who will have access to them. (This is a requirement of the OSHA "Employee Access to Medical and Exposure Records" standard.)

If SSNs have been obtained in the past and are not now in secure and confidential files, find them and put them into the proper record system.

If an employee is reluctant to provide you with his or her SSN, give them a copy of the section of the OSHA standard that requires obtaining the SSN. Explain that they may work through their supervisor, human resources representative or another trusted party to securely incorporate their SSN with the proper OSHA record.

Years ago giving out our Social Security number was no big deal, but times have changed. For example, membership in the National Organization for Non-Enumeration (NONE), is rising fast because of a growing concern among the public that the SSN will become a national identity card. Some militant groups view the SSN as being equivalent to Hitler stamping ID numbers on Jews, or they raise the specter of the SSN being the "mark of the beast." We may dismiss as outlandish such thoughts, but can you honestly say you know what is in the mind of an employee when you ask for his or her SSN?