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By: Stacey Godbold

Why Whistleblowers Don’t Want to Blow

I had a conversation recently with a friend who is a crane operator. Naturally, I started talking about reporting incidents. In just a few sentences, I got a really good feel for his perception of the safety culture. 

I asked him about reporting observations or near misses. We talked for a bit and then he said, “If my buddy reports three near misses and I report six, he is considered safer than me. He may get assigned to a better job.” 

This was a revelation to me. I understand the thought process, however, so many questions came to mind. What is the safety culture? Do they talk about near misses and how they are important—particularly WHY they are important? Is this only my friend’s perception or are they really giving better jobs to team members who report less? 

Whistleblower History

The U.S. government has long made protecting whistleblowers a priority. Just seven months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress passed the “world’s first whistleblower protection law.” This law was inspired by ten brave American sailors and marines who reported improper behavior by the Continental Navy’s most powerful man. Although they spoke up without provisions in place, modern whistleblowers today are protected under the law .

Modern Day Whistleblower Retaliation

In fact, OSHA enforced the whistleblower provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and 20 other statutes protecting employees who report alleged violations. A recently published article highlighted a transportation company that was ordered to pay a worker $222k in back wages for being fired for reporting safety concerns. Additionally, there are several examples of reinstatement and payment of back wages and damages since 2016. 

Lingering Questions

So why is it that even though there are whistleblower provisions and laws, workers are still being penalized for reporting substandard conditions? Why is there a lingering perception that reporting near misses or incidents means a worker is NOT a safe employee? Are these the reasons whistleblowers don’t want to blow?

Steps For Change

I understand that issues of this magnitude will not go away completely—and certainly not be solved overnight. Sharing best practices with each other and learning from safety professionals who have created positive improvements in psychological safety is a great first step to change. 

I recently facilitated a webinar on psychological safety. We had an excellent speaker share the profound changes in his safety culture in terms of reporting observations, close calls, and incidents, as well as a lively “round table” discussion. I hope it prompts ideas and action steps for you in the realm of psychological safety. (Watch here) 

We have come a long way since 1777. However, considering team members are being unjustly fired for reporting safety concerns, we still have work to do.

Join me in next week’s newsletter  for part two on this topic: Psychological Safety: Perception is Reality 

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