The book Wikinomics (New York Times 2007 best seller) provides compelling evidence that mass collaboration will change everything. Mass collaboration is beginning to affect change to the field of occupational safety and health, primarily by generating more information. But care must be taken in using this information.

What’s “wiki?’

“Wiki” is the Hawaiian word for “fast,” but now is used as a blend of words to describe varied aspects of mass collaboration. Wikipedia, the Web-based encyclopedia, is the best example of this popular blend of words. Wikipedia (http:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About) is collaboratively written by volunteers. The content is free and anyone can edit the information.

Some people claim Wikipedia is too error-prone to be trustworthy. Is this is true? The information next to the bullet below is exactly as it appeared online (accessed July 21, 2009) at the Wikipedia site (http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Occupational_safety_and_health).
  • In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1979[1] created both the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Did you catch the error that the OSH Act was issued in 1970, not 1979?

Mass collaboration will fix errors

When you look closely you can find errors in almost every source of information. Fixing errors, however, shows the growing difference between new and old forms of information. In the Wikipedia example, anyone can fix the error quickly. Go fix the error now, if someone hasn’t beaten you to it, and add more content or citations while you’re there. You can do all this anonymously if you wish. That’s the value of fast mass collaboration.

Who uses new school information?

We are beginning to see the leanings of experts toward new school information. In May, 2009 the Center for Health Risk Communication at George Mason University published a study on toxicologists’ opinion on chemical risk (see http:// stats.org/stories/2009/are_chemicals_killing_ us.html). According to the authors “in perhaps the most surprising finding in the entire study” new media trumps old. The report finds that toxicologists favor chemical risk information from Wikipedia over information found in major newspapers. Anonymous authors trump professional journalists.

Physicians are leaning toward new school information, too. According to an article in the July 15, 2009, USA Today: “…nearly half of all doctors going online for professional purposes reported using Wikipedia as a source of medical information. That number has doubled in the past year alone.”

And according to a recent study by the Pew Internet and America Life Project, more than 160 million adults in the U.S. have gone online to look for medical information. If your doctor uses Wikipedia, wouldn’t you want to go there, too?

Who do you trust?

With all this Web 2.0 activity, and Wikipedia is just but one example, you must choose what data you trust and be ready to refute information that you feel is not trustworthy. For example, will you blindly provide each of your employees the Wikibook on first-aid, or will you review the contents beforehand to make sure that all information is accurate?

The study on toxicologists’ opinion on chemical risk provides some interesting findings about trust. A major finding is that environmental groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund greatly overstate chemical risk while industry groups such as the American Chemistry Council greatly understate chemical risk. Views on chemical risk depend on what side of the fence you stand and who you trust.

The toxicologists study also shows that trust is never absolute. Almost as many toxicologists feel their own society (Society of Toxicology) overstates chemical risk as understates chemical risk. And although 86 percent of toxicologists feel SOT provides accurate information on chemical risk (the highest rank among all information sources), that still leaves about one in every ten toxicologists who question the accuracy of chemical risk information from their own group.

Verify information

According to Wikipedia, “Trust but verify” was a signature phrase of Ronald Reagan. More than ever, it must be an ongoing practice for every occupational safety and health pro.

Mass collaboration that generates and affects change to occupational safety and health information is certain to grow. But how do we verify that information is accurate, especially when it may be from anonymous contributors from sites such as Wikipedia?

In next month’s column we’ll learn how to verify the accuracy of scientific studies and the soundness of other occupational safety and health information. In the meantime, being a little skeptical of all information you read or hear is good advice. And joining the mass collaboration to improve occupational safety and health is a good thing. Now go fix that error in Wikipedia about when the OSH Act was formed.