Even with safety as a high priority, the chances are that health, safety and wellbeing concerns are going unreported in the workplace. 

Knowing about issues or incidents helps companies to track trends, identify risks and prevent accidents. So why don’t people always speak up? In times of economic uncertainty, there may be even fewer reports. Understanding the reasons for under-reporting will help when encouraging reporting as a safety behaviour.

Man with his head resting on his hands

Many factors impact whether someone reports a concern, from company culture to managerial attitudes and behaviours. Personal experience and perception matter too. Will a report make a difference, and will employees (not just the reporter) know about the resulting actions?  Is there a personal risk to speaking up, maybe because of difficult working relationships?

Our members tell us that the way to encourage reporting is to focus on what you can influence and offer a variety of reporting channels. However employees speak up, doing so is a positive outcome that benefits the business. You may already know about the issue raised, in which case a report can highlight a communication gap and potentially reveal additional important information.

In this article we look at some of the reasons why people may not report concerns.

Safety climate

Health and safety reporting channels, including CIRAS, are widely available in transport. They only work if staff understand them and know how to access them. Can contractors and temporary workers easily report concerns in your business? Do they know this?

Employees’ perception of safety culture in their workplace can be a key barrier stopping them speaking up. Many things shape a company’s safety climate: management priorities; whether safety information is openly exchanged; availability of accessible and relevant training; and how safety systems work. Unsurprisingly, positive perceptions create higher safety compliance and fewer accidents.

Where there is no positive safety climate, employees may not know about safe practices or what a near-miss is. They may assume that managers who do not seem to care about safety behaviours do not want to know about incidents or issues. Therefore, they don’t report. Someone may consider an issue ‘minor’ and then not report it.

Workplaces can improve their safety climate by encouraging safety behaviours such as reporting concerns. On the other hand, rewarding certain safety outcomes such as low numbers of lost-time injuries could unintentionally discourage people from reporting.

Fear of consequences

Under-reporting may be more likely in so-called macho environments if people have got used to viewing accidents as inevitable or believe it couldn’t happen to them. They may be embarrassed if it does, or feel that others will judge them if they speak up. Some people may not report human error due to embarrassment, feelings of responsibility or being wary of punishment. Workplaces may have moved on, but individual attitudes and beliefs remain influential.

Cross-industry Nottingham Business School research found that the command and control structure of many operational roles might increase the risk of management behaviours that foster a culture of fear. In such a culture, employees may fear reprisal if they speak up, such as losing their job. In times of economic uncertainty, such as now, this fear may be greater.

In psychologically safe environments employees feel able to contribute freely at work – learning, discussing, and questioning. They are happy to communicate because they do not fear any negative consequences. A team’s psychological safety can determine whether an employee chooses a quiet fix – fixing a problem alone without reporting or discussing it – or a noisy fix – where the whole team knows and can identify the root cause to prevent reoccurrence.

Where someone is not comfortable telling colleagues, confidential reporting can offer a safety valve. Reporters have told us that they came directly to CIRAS because they didn’t want to be seen as a 'troublemaker'.

Including everyone

Diversity – in age, sex, ethnicity, languages, skill sets and more – may, through introducing alternative perspectives, lead to an issue being noticed in the first place. Diverse views can challenge assumptions and groupthink.

But someone’s individual experiences may stop them speaking up. If they already feel singled out, they may not want to draw further attention to themselves. They may have been the only person to identify a concern, but it could go unmentioned.

Power balance might come into play. In a Canadian study, young workers said their age and inexperience gave them less influence and they would ‘wait and see’ if anyone else noticed or if the situation would be resolved, despite awareness campaigns encouraging young people to be proactive about safety.

Follow through

An employee will weigh up the safety cost of keeping quiet with the perceived personal cost of speaking up. They need to believe that their concern will lead to investigation and further action if required.

Some workers have come to CIRAS because they did not think management would listen if they raised their concern internally. Others were aware of colleagues raising an issue internally and nothing happening. CIRAS’ end-of-year data shows that most reporters to CIRAS indicate a positive workplace safety culture, but a falling percentage believe that managers take reports seriously.

What can you do?

There are many ways you can overcome barriers to reporting in your business. Are you actively encouraging your staff to come forward with health and safety concerns, and do they know how to speak up? Have you made sure that everyone knows what channels are open to them, and how to get in touch? Do you go back to staff with the outcomes of their reports, so they can see how they have made a difference?

Being heard can boost morale, and feedback that shows a genuine interest can create a chain reaction, letting others know it is worth speaking up. Visibly being a good listener, showing openness to change and willingness to explore possible actions could be all it takes to level up reporting levels in your business.

Find out more

Why listening can prevent safety silence

Building a speak-up culture

To speak up we need psychological safety