Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Headline news and teachable OH&S moments: can social media play a role?

Workers’ compensation stories rarely make “front page” news or the “top stories” lists on newsfeeds.  Many stories that do attain headline status have a workers’ compensation connection that is often overlooked, missing an important “teachable moment.”

The recent riot in Vancouver that followed the final Stanley Cup game certainly made headlines around the world, but few will hear about the dozens of workers who suffered injuries as a result of that event.  That number may well grow because workers have up to a year to file a claim with WorkSafeBC.  So far, I haven’t read anything in the media regarding the effectiveness of risk assessments employers undertook before or after the riot, and the plans to protect workers from future risks of violence.

The weather in most of North America is another headline story with very little reference to the protection of workers.  Record-breaking heat and humidity are not only uncomfortable, they can be dangerous particularly to workers who have to spend their work hours in that environment.   US Labor Secretary, Hilda Solis, issued a news release on July 20, 2011 to remind employers of their duty to protect workers saying:

 “Employers must take the precautions needed to protect outdoor workers:

§  Have a work site plan to prevent heat-related . . .

§  Provide plenty of water at the job site and remind workers to drink small amounts of water frequently - every 15 minutes.

§  Schedule rest breaks throughout the work shift and provide shaded or air conditioned rest areas near the work site.

§  Let new workers get used to the extreme heat, gradually increasing the work load over a week.

§  When possible, schedule heavy tasks for earlier in the day.

Tell workers what to look for to spot the signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke in themselves and their co-workers, and make sure they know what to do in an emergency.”

All of this is great advice, but is the story reaching the intended audience?  A simple search on Google News will show more than 10,000 recent stories on the heat wave; only a dozen or so mentioned employers’ responsibilities for their workers.   From a random sampling of stories with some reference to employers’ responsibilities or practical advice for workers, the references were well down in the text and far below the newsfeed summary or Tweet limit of 140 characters. 

Hazard Alerts and other targeted communications have the potential to reach audiences who need the information but these rely heavily on employers and safety officers self-selecting to receive this sort of communication. 

Now that most of us are headline news consumers, even stories that do contain great information may not be reaching the people who need to hear the message and learn from it.  I’m not suggesting we abandon rapid response and “push” feeds of safety and health information related to headline events; these strategies work for the thoughtful reader who clicks beyond the headline.   And there is no doubt in my mind that linking employer responsibilities and safety advice to headline stories is a potentially strong learning opportunity.  I am suggesting that new approaches to disseminating timely safety and health information need to be developed to reach receptive audiences.  In the age of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, effective use of social media needs to be part of the answer.

Next time you are looking at your newsfeed, Flipboard app or Google News summary, look at some of the local headline stories and ask yourself, as a worker or employer, what would these circumstances mean to my occupational safety and health?  If you find a good story that does use a current headline as a teachable health and safety or workers’ compensation moment,  re-tweet the story or share it with a friend. 

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