It’s January 1, 2010. President Mark Warner (the former Democratic governor of Virginia) is set to sign “The Workplace Full Disclosure for Safety’s Sake Act.” It’s a voluntary reporting system for employers to submit on an annual basis information about critical safety and health related processes and outcomes. The measure was pushed through the Democratic-controlled Congress after the European Union and the People’s Republic of China adopted similar reporting schemes. Globalization has forced nations to compete on many fronts, including the need to be transparent about working conditions and employee safety.

So we have “The Workplace Full Disclosure for Safety’s Sake Act.” Employers will submit each year reports of safety and health activities and results to NIOSH. NIOSH, in turn, will use the reports to create a national database for benchmarking best practices. More intriguing, NIOSH will also use the information to issue an annual “SafetyGrades for Work Sites in America Study.”

At the signing ceremony at the headquarters of McWane, Inc., in Birmingham, Ala., President Warner proclaims, “This reporting system will celebrate the quality of America’s workplace safety improvement processes. If all work sites perform as well as the sites receiving the highest SafetyGrades, the United States will be more competitive in the global marketplace.”

Safety and health professionals are ecstatic. Not since the passage of the Occupational Health and Safety Act have they been handed such a lever to pry greater health and safety commitments from employers.

Performance indicators

The full disclosure bill asks businesses to publicly report ten outcomes to NIOSH:

  • Annual injury/illness incidence rate (which is down to 2.0 in 2009);
  • Number of cases involving falls;
  • Number of cases involving overexertion;
  • Number of cases involving repetitive motion;
  • Percent positive scores on safety culture perception surveys;
  • Ratio of full-time-equivalent safety and health professionals per 200 employees;
  • Number of near miss/close call incidents reported;
  • Number of executive safety and health walkabouts conducted;
  • Number of risk assessment/hazard recognition surveys conducted;
  • Percentage of identified hazards abated within 90 days.

Companies in the top-ten percent are to receive NIOSH’s “SafetyGrades Distinguished Achievement Award.” Ranking is based using a formula that rewards low incident rates, low numbers for types of cases, and low ratios of professionals to employees; high numbers of reported close calls, executive walkabouts, risk assessments, and hazards abated; and high percentage positive scores on perception surveys.

Making the pitch

But remember, this is a voluntary reporting system. So let’s eavesdrop as a safety pro pitches participation in the new system to his CEO:

“I think it’s worth going transparent, sir. Global forces, you know. Heck, we don’t want China making us look like we’ve got something to hide.”

“First question for you: What’s this ‘my gosh’?”

“NIOSH, sir. It’s a government research agency.”

“I don’t know about this ‘walkabout’ thing. I do deals, you know, not inspections.”

“They needn’t be inspections. Walkarounds can be your chance to engage employees in critical conversations about their perceptions of safety and health.”

“Are these going to be conversations or gripe sessions? And speaking of perceptions, we’re opening Pandora’s Box if we ask them what they think about safety.”

“It’s all part of having a culture of open communication, sir.”

“Do you have evidence that open communication will make us more profitable? And this ratio business — can we count our behavioral observers, safety steering committee members, shift safety contacts and our safety consultants as full-time-equivalents? With what we pay those consultants that should earn us some points…”

“There have always been debates about defining just who is a safety professional. I have to look into it.”

“And this number of cases due to overexertion. Not a lot we can do about this. How hard each worker pushes himself is up to him. You know, motivation, personality, mouths to feed at home. We can’t control that.”

“But look at it this way, sir. This reporting system will show job hunters, consumers, stockholders, and the press the companies that are safe and the ones that aren’t. If we score high, we score points with all of them.”

“Wait a minute. I’ve never seen evidence that safe companies get a better quality workforce. Never heard a Wall Street analyst bring up safety in a buy/sell evaluation. And I never saw customers boycott a brand over high accident rates. All this sounds good and logical, but where’s the evidence?”

“But sir, scoring high on SafetyGrades is sure to get us good press, and it’ll look great in our annual Corporate Citizenship Report.”

“I haven’t seen safety success stories get written up. That’s Saturday edition page 23 stuff. And we cram so many feel-good stories in our Citizenship Report I don’t know if we have room for any more. Enough talk about the soft stuff. Bottom line, if we go to work to improve our scores in all these areas, is it going to increase quality, productivity, sales?”

“You’re referring to the business case for safety and health, sir. We’ve been working on it.”

“It’s 2010, man. Don’t you have something to show me? I’m a numbers guy. Get me some data.”

— Dave Johnson, Editor