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Measuring the Quality of a Workplace Incident Report Can Be a Challenge

Judges in Texas handed Walmart a couple of disappointing decisions in June on the subject of store safety. In one case, a three-judge panel for the fifth circuit revived a lawsuit by a man who claims he slipped and fell because of a puddle on a store floor caused by a Walmart auto-scrubber. In another, the Fifth Court of Appeals rejected Walmart’s request to toss out a $1.39 million award to a woman who was injured while shopping when a box fell on her head.

It’s an unavoidable fact that injuries to customers (and workers) will happen in retail stores. So a key question for retailers is whether they can devise an accident investigation process that does all it can to prevent them from happening again.

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A national survey of safety professionals identified “initiation and follow-up of incident investigations” as the most important safety best practice of supervisors. That raises important questions:

  • How can you improve stores’ handling of workplace incidents?
  • How can you compel mangers—who may be inclined to gloss over problems in an effort to save time—to truly dig into safety events?

Some safety experts suggest that a good way to improve accident investigations is to measure the quality of incident reports and investigations.

Accident investigation is an area that has several opportunities for measuring performance. For example, data can be tracked on “percentage of accident reports turned in on time,” or “percent of investigations initiated within 24 hours of the incident.” Such measures are certainly useful, but they don’t truly measure what is most important; namely, are those accident reports of sufficient quality to lead to improvements in store safety? If it is true that “what gets measures gets done,” then retailers need to assess the quality of managers’ investigations if they want to raise the quality of those investigations.

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One possibility is using a “quality review system.” In such a process, a given workplace incident report is submitted to a committee for a review, which then grades the report on quality aspects, such as thoroughness. Such a system has several critical components:

  • Training committee members on how to evaluate the quality of investigations.
  • Training supervisors on how the review committee is going to evaluate the quality of accident reports.
  • Providing evaluators with a tool for objectively measuring the quality of a workplace incident report.

If a company establishes a formal system for evaluating accident investigations, the thinking goes, it can better hold managers accountable for the reports they issue. It also provides an opportunity to incentivize improvements in the quality of managers’ accident reports. Additionally, when corporate teams measures the quality of accident reports, it typically has the immediate positive effect of local managers allocating more time to their completion.

A formal method of analyzing accident reports may not be right for all retailers. The existing safety culture will indicate whether it’s necessary or desirable.

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While it’s not always a good fit, some accident investigation specialists warn that organizations typically have an inflated notion of how aggressively managers and supervisors look for answers in the wake of a workplace injury. Some suggest that simply training a manager how to conduct an accident investigation is often insufficient to counter conflicting pressures that often lead to cursory investigations. As such, measuring the “quality” of a workplace incident report may help an organization avoid problems such as:

  • Managers who only give workers the minimum amount of time necessary to fill out incident reports;
  • Managers who fail to take the time to go back to workers to ask them to fill in gaps in a poorly written workplace incident report.
  • Managers who fail to conduct all the interviews necessary to obtain a complete picture of the events surrounding and leading up to an incident.
  • Managers who identify and implement only the easiest corrective actions in order to get “back to business.”

But how do you grade “quality”? Experts say a score can be given on how well a workplace incident report or accident report provides information including: details such that anyone reading it could reasonably learn “what” happened, “when,” “where,” and understand the sequence of events; descriptions of actions and/or conditions that contributed to the situation; insight into why actions/conditions were not anticipated; description of all policies, standards, and procedures covering the event; and specific recommendations for corrective actions.

Implementing an “accident report quality review” can be problematic if the scoring mechanism for measuring quality is not well planned or does not have widespread support. There will be a lot of pressure on any tool that a company uses for scoring, experts warn. A review process also needs support and input from a retailer’s legal counsel. Still, some safety experts suggest the idea can be worth pursuing. After all, a workplace incident report is a primary mechanism for learning from past mistakes.

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