We’ve reviewed our data from 2020/21 so far to see what 2020 can tell us about what’s worrying staff, and reporting behaviour. How has the pandemic changed the type of concerns that we receive? Are people raising concerns differently or not speaking up at all? The data for safety culture statements indicates reasons to be positive, including a higher percentage of reporters saying safety reporting is encouraged where they work, but the picture is far from clear.

When we shared our annual data for the 2019/20 financial year in May, people were starting to understand how Covid-19 would impact the world. We indicated then that we had received almost double the proportion of health and wellbeing concerns than in 2018/19, and around half of the increase was from Covid-19 concerns raised in March 2020.

Although the number of frontline staff contacting CIRAS was higher in March/April 2020 compared with the same period in the previous five years, reporting numbers dropped dramatically in May and remained low throughout the summer. What can the data1 tell us about this?

[1] The data is presented in four-week periods with period one starting on 1 April.

Covid-19 concerns reported to CIRAS were understandably high at the start of the pandemic and seemed to come at the expense of other health and safety concerns. It appears that as health and safety measures were put in place and national restrictions were relaxed, Covid-19 concerns also fell. They increased again in November and December (periods 8 and 9).

At the same time, concerns about other issues have dwindled. One explanation is that Covid-19 has become such a focus that people may have become blind to ‘everyday’ hazards or long-term health and safety issues, or their personal threshold for what they consider a risk might have changed. Or, are people not coming to CIRAS because their concerns are being dealt with effectively internally first? Some members have also suggested that day-to-day report numbers fell because activity was low.

What have reports been about?
We analyse the intelligence we collect during interviews with those who raise concerns. This allows us to look for patterns and trends, and reflect on what that might be telling us.

It also helps our members to spot gaps.  What isn’t being reported?  Where aren’t you getting reports from?  Could those areas need more focused efforts to engage with frontline staff, if people aren’t speaking up? What you don’t know can hurt you, and this may be even more pertinent than in previous years, with the possibility that Covid-19 may be pushing other concerns to the back of the queue.

We do know that other health and safety issues haven’t disappeared, and the reduced number of reports is echoed in some other organisations in the transport industry and beyond. We explored different reasons for why people don’t report in the last issue of Membership Matters. Covid-19 may have improved company engagement with staff about health and safety, with more people becoming aware of internal reporting channels. On the other hand, fear or apathy could be putting people off reporting at all. 

The following graphs show which sectors CIRAS reports have gone to and what they have been about, from April to December 2020.

Culture and trust
One of the findings from the data for April to December 2020 is that a larger proportion of reporters came to CIRAS without reporting internally first (39%, compared with 28% for the whole of 2019/20).

We don’t have full data for 2020/21 yet, but nevertheless this indicates a change and an opportunity to consider why. Are people more worried about reporting things internally during a pandemic?  Do people believe that CIRAS offers the best way for them to be heard objectively, and what might be the reasons behind that? As mentioned earlier, it could also be that we are not seeing the concerns come through that are being resolved effectively internally.

We have also seen an increase in anonymous contacts. Confidentiality is not the same as anonymity. We can feed back to people who share their concerns in confidence, but we can’t do this without having contact details.  The growth in anonymous reports could indicate increased fear and uncertainty around employment, which ties in with fears about the longer-term impact of the pandemic.

The proportion of reporters stating fear of retribution as the reason they came to CIRAS has increased slightly so far this year. This is something we will continue to monitor.

Taken together, all these could be indicators of a shift towards less open reporting cultures. However, remember that this is only data for part of the year, and the responses to the safety culture statements offer a more positive picture. Reporters tell us they are seeing greater promotion of safety reporting and more acknowledgement and responsiveness from managers, which is all good news.  So in fact reporting cultures may be opening up.

Looking ahead
It’s important to keep reminding staff about all the different reporting channels, that they can speak up without negative consequences, and that confidential reporting is still available if they prefer it.  Although health and safety was top of everyone’s agenda in 2020, the focus was often specifically on Covid-19. Staff will need to stay alert to other health and safety issues in the next few months, so that past improvements are not lost, and incidents are prevented. This may happen naturally as the threat and fear of Covid-19 subsides, but intentionally raising awareness would support this.

CIRAS is here to help improve health and safety across the transport sector.  As we start 2021, many challenges remain, but we are still here – so please keep in touch and let us know how we can help you.