25 years after CIRAS was established, director of CIRAS Catherine Baker explores whether confidential reporting still has a role to play. 



If safety cultures keep improving, will there come a point when we don’t need confidential reporting any more?

This was a question I asked myself when I took on the leadership of CIRAS and one I have been asked by others since.

The more I learn, the more I realise that this is the wrong question.  It is a bit like asking, ‘if we can reduce the number of accidents on the road will we stop needing to wear seatbelts?’  Seatbelts are an intrinsic part of the safety system, working alongside airbags, braking systems and so on to keep you safe in an environment that is complex and sometimes unpredictable.  In the same way, the option to raise concerns or listen confidentially works alongside other controls in work environments that are complex and sometimes unpredictable.

A safe space to speak out

CIRAS has been listening confidentially for 25 years.  In that time many voices have been heard that may otherwise have remained unheeded, and those insights have created many opportunities to reduce risk to the workforce and the public they serve.  You can’t count the accidents that didn’t happen.

As we look forward, the types of concerns and ideas that are raised confidentially may change, but in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world (often referred to as a ‘VUCA’ world) a safe space to speak out will be critical for some time to come.

It boils down to us all being human.  However objective and open we think we are, we don’t always hear what people are really trying to say.  However much we tell ourselves we would always speak up if something was unsafe, you don’t have to read many accident reports to discover that we are all subject to influences that sometimes prevent us speaking out openly.

CIRAS members operate across the transport and infrastructure sectors, and rely on the many thousands of people working within them.  People who collectively bring a huge range of skills, experiences and perspectives.  People who notice hazards, whether they be physical, procedural or cultural.

Listening closer

Irrespective of the role we are in, we all know the importance of listening to colleagues – whether it’s when they shout ‘watch out’ if they don’t think you have spotted a trip hazard, or when they tell you they’ve been up half the night with a young child and are struggling to concentrate today.

But sometimes listening can be harder.  A warning may be disguised in a passing comment if the person is not comfortable challenging authority.  A fatigued parent may be doing their best to concentrate and carry on without saying anything.  These subtle warning signs are just as critical, but more easily missed.

Unintended bias can make it hard to listen too, just as the orchestral world discovered when they started doing blind auditions.  Certain musicians who previously were not deemed to be of the right standard were listened to in a new way and made it into top orchestras.  Orchestras became more diverse by including highly talented musicians from previously underrepresented groups.  Sometimes when we hear an idea or concern, without even realising it our interpretation and response can be influenced by who raised it.  There are times when listening without knowing the source can help us hear things we might otherwise filter out.  Confidential reporting provides that opportunity.

Often, information that could prevent the next ‘close call’, incident or occupational health exposure is already known by somebody.  We just need to give that information every chance to make its way to those who recognise its significance and can act on it, just as when in a car we give ourselves every chance of arriving safely by using all of the layers of protection.

Committed to our mission

Yes, let’s keep working to create a psychologically safe culture so that more people feel they can speak up openly to their supervisor or manager.  Yes, let’s have a range of mechanisms so that people can speak up in person, send a message, log a fault or report something through an app.  Yes, let’s give people the option to put their name to a concern or keep their identity protected.

25 years on, CIRAS remains committed to our mission of improving health, wellbeing and safety by connecting the ideas and concerns of those who see, hear and feel what is going on in all corners of a business with those who have the power to act. 

Whenever someone feels they are more likely to be heard by speaking up confidentially, we are here to listen.

If you are interested to find out more, have a look around our website or call the team on 020 3142 5369.  If you have a concern that you would like to be heard, we are ready to listen on our freephone hotline 0800 4 101 101.


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