It's not uncommon for employees to protect their status by screening or withholding information that might reflect badly on them if revealed to management.

Withholding information could have major consequences when it comes to safety. The risks of personal injury, property damage, enforcement fines or civil liability could all have a dramatic human and financial impact. These risks should only be managed by duly authorized, upper level administrators. But how can administrators obtain the objective information they need? A staff or contracted safety professional must have the latitude to inspect and audit all operations and report his/her findings directly to executive management. Here's an example to prove my point:

Up go the shields

During an inspection of the fire detection systems of a major academic facility, a safety professional determined that one of five zones of heat detectors in a particular building was not operational. The physical facilities technician responsible for routine testing and maintenance of the system was contacted, and it was determined that a circuit board in the building's 30-year-old fire panel had ceased to function several weeks earlier. Many of the heat detector heads in the building were also not functional. The technician had reported the situation to his immediate supervisor when the failure was first noticed, but the supervisor decided that repair or replacement of the components could wait for a system-wide upgrade anticipated in two to three years.

Now it turns out this supervisor had been the technician responsible for the testing and maintenance of the fire detection system years earlier. He was aware of recurring problems with the building's fire detection system and the difficulty of obtaining replacement parts, but he had recommended to the administration not to implement a previously scheduled upgrade of the equipment as a cost-saving gesture.

When the more recent problems developed, this supervisor had the opportunity and responsibility to accurately report the limited system failure to his section manager during routine supervisory meetings, but he chose not to do so. He wanted to shield himself from his earlier recommendation to not upgrade the system when replacement expenses would actually have been lower.

The importance of access

In this particular organization's structure, a technician reports to a supervisor, who reports to the section manager, who reports to the physical plant director, who reports to the administrative vice president, who reports to the institution's president and chief executive officer. The institution's safety professional works independently of this hierarchical structure and reports directly to the administrative vice president with access to the institution's president as needed.

When the fire detection system problem detected by the safety inspector was brought directly to the attention of the administrative vice president, the information was immediately conveyed to the physical plant director. Action was promptly taken to allocate funding to correct the problem and restore full functionality to the building's fire detection system.

If the safety professional had not intervened, the physical plant director and section manager would not likely have learned of the problem and nearly 20 percent of the unsprinklered academic building would have been left without any type of functional fire detection for as many as three years. Although he was not authorized to make risk management decisions, the supervisor had decided to minimize the issue and quietly accept the risk until a future upgrade could be initiated. When the administrative vice president became aware of the issue, he deemed the risk entirely unacceptable and immediately directed repair of the system.