Coronavirus is an information problem – and so is worker safety

by | Oct 7, 2020 | Blog

In his latest blog – ‘an attempt to change some limiting assumptions on near-miss reporting in the workplace’ – Notify Technology CEO Duncan Davies responds to an article by top FT journalist and New York Times Bestselling author Tim Harford.

In Tim’s article, he wrote:

Coronavirus is an information problem. A few people are infected, but we don’t know who. We are forced to assume that anybody might be.

It would be worth a lot to know who are infectious, and the obvious way to approach this is to produce tests so cheap, so plentiful, and so easy to administer that everyone could test themselves frequently, by spitting on a strip of special paper.

The article was particularly insightful given the news this week that global mass testing is now starting to be rolled out (the UK government isn’t going to use these tests because we’re building up lab-based capability which give more accurate results…apparently).

Tim’s point is that we are facing huge levels of social and economic disruption because we decide to isolate whole groups of people who ‘might’ have Coronavirus. This is leading to entire year groups being sent home from schools, the closure of event and hospitality spaces, and the shut-down of many factories.

If we knew more quickly who was infectious, we could avoid much of this inconvenience and get the global economy moving back towards recovery.

The argument for using mass testing

The big challenge for mass testing, and the argument used again it, is that these tests are not as reliable. In particular, there’s an issue with false-positives: where someone who isn’t infectious shows up as positive and has to isolate for 14 days (there’s also a pretty obvious problem with false negatives too, where people are walking round spreading the virus to others after a negative test result).

Tim advocates the idea of using mass testing – even with the potential for false positives – as a way of bridging the information gap:

“even a shoddy test used well can nudge the odds in our favour”.
He goes on to show that even allowing for false positives, this form of mass testing could still place us in a much better place that we are currently. Such a test could be used at the school gates, airports, theatres etc…and if someone returns positive, they can be sent home to organise a “proper” test. If that finds they are negative, they are free to re-join society after a day or two.

What’s all this got to do with workforce safety?

I’d argue that Worker Safety is also an information problem. If a worker had perfect real-time information on the underlying and potential risk about the activity they are about to undertake, would they ever get injured, or worse? Unlikely.

If a manager or board of directors had information on “work as done” versus “work as imagined” would they fail to put in place the right safe systems of work that help keep those workers stay safe? Maybe I’m giving too much credit here, but I feel most leaders would do something – even if it costs money.

My point is that we are living through an Information Age, so we actually have many of the tools to help solve this information problem.

This is most obviously true of near-miss reporting, which forms the bedrock of a great safety management system.

In many companies, the process of reporting a near-miss is akin to the full Covid test…where you have to drive 10 miles, stick a swab up your nasal passage and wait 2 days to see if anything is wrong (except with most near-miss reporting systems, more often than not the reporter never actually finds out the “result”!)

For completeness, and to keep the metaphor going, in some sectors and organisations there’s also a natural unwillingness to “get tested” in the first place. In other words, it’s seen as poor form or plain old ‘grassing’ to report a near-miss about a colleague. Let’s be honest, that’s a bit like having all the Coronavirus symptoms but refusing to get tested. There are some complex and longstanding behavioural barriers to break down there – and who said safety management was easy?!

Why do organisations make it complicated for workers to report near-misses?

I think a large part of the answer lies in safety professionals wanting to get ‘perfect information’. They may have wasted many hours in their careers trying to decipher half-written near-miss cards, or trawl through clues on a form to figure out what someone was trying to report. When the full information is provided, it’s gold dust, but it comes at the cost of so many near-misses going unreported. They end up avoiding ‘false positives’ by getting only a small sample of the potential information available.

I’m an advocate of simplicity and pragmatism. As Tim Harford puts it, even a “shoddy test….can nudge the odds in our favour”.

Even a really basic near-miss report can help shed some light on a potential issue. Having that (initially incomplete) result still beats getting no reports that would have contained great information had someone had the time to fill them in!.

Technology helps increase the flow of information

Modern, mobile technology provides the super-fast bridge between the reporter and the manager or safety professional. Instead of going for the 100% information version, go for something that gives you the best ‘signal’. That signal might be different for rail (excuse the pun), manufacturing, construction, events etc. but you’ll know its characteristics and the words your workforce would use when they spot that signal.

Go for simple and quick and watch employee engagement and reporting rise.

Will there still be false positives? Yes, certainly in that there will be reports that come in that look really serious, but where nothing happened. And reports that look benign at first glance but are deeply concerning from a safety perspective.

The key is that the technology tools now available give the ability to drill to the next level, because information is being shared in real-time. It takes seconds to respond to an alert, and because we’re no longer waiting days for the form to arrive in the first place, we can engage the worker and dig deeper if needed. This is how a whole organisation can turn ‘shoddy’ data into information and then into knowledge.

What about the person reporting? Well, they can quickly get back on with their day. They can be invited in for some further safety training, or rewarded for spotting a potential efficiency gain or celebrated for preventing a potentially serious incident.

What has mass near-miss reporting ever done for me?

To conclude, I’ll paraphrase Tim Harford:

it would be worth a lot to know about every single safety issue in an organisation.

The route to getting at that information is via every single person that works in the organisation. Provide them with a daily easy-to-complete opportunity to signal issues and you turn that data and information into new knowledge that helps to create a safer, and far better, business.


Thanks for reading my article – it would be great to spark a conversation and a debate.

Agree? Will you share examples of best practice?

Disagree? I’d love to hear your reasons. Connect with me on LinkedIn

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Interested in learning more about how you can use technology to capture and investigate near-misses in your business? Click here to read about Notify’s smart Health & Safety software.