Bring out your dead: Media influence on worker perceptions of injuryCanadian Association for Work and Labour Studies Conference
1 June 2018, Regina
Bob Barnetson, Jason Foster and Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull
What I’d like to talk to you about today is some research I’ve done with my colleagues Jason Foster and Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull. We recently conducted a survey of 2000 Alberta workers that, in part, explored their views on workplace injury.
This research was funded by the Government of Alberta’s OHS Futures Research Grant Program.
We were interested in workers’ views of injury because, over the past few years, several studies have found that Canadian newspapers profoundly mis-represent the frequency and type of workplace injuries that occur as well as which workers experience injuries.
Specifically, newspapers tend to over-report fatalities, they over-report injuries to men, they over-report dramatic injuries, and the over-report injuries in the construction, agriculture, and mining and petroleum industries.
Here’s an example. On the left, you have newspaper reports of workplace injuries in Canada from 2009 to 2014. It shows that 61.2% of reports addressed fatalities. On the right, you have WCB injury stats—which we acknowledge are not perfect stats—that show the fatalities comprise only 0.4% of all serious injuries.
This pattern is replicated in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and BC. It is also consistent in both daily papers (which tend to be urban-based) and weekly papers (which tend to be rural).
An important question this research raises is whether the over-reporting of dramatic injuries to blue-collar men affects the public’s perceptions of injury? If the answer is yes, this has public policy implications because it may negatively affect injury prevention efforts.
One conceptualization of the construction of reality is that we combine our experienced reality—which is our personal experiences and those of our friends and families—with the symbolic reality we’re exposed to—basically what we hear from social groups, institutions, and the media.
That information is combined in our heads to create a shared reality. In that model, the symbolic reality helps flesh out what we know from our personal experiences. Symbolic information containing significant bias might well skew our eventual views on an issue. At the same time, our personal experiences may potentially act as correctives to such bias.
Our suspicion was (and is) that reporting that contains profound biases would skew individual’s perceptions and that their personal experiences might not act as an effective corrective.
To get a sense of whether our hunch was right (and thus warranted further research), we added four questions to an unrelated survey of 2000 non-managerial Alberta workers in the spring of 2017. These questions were designed to determine the degree to which workers’ views aligned with or diverged from media reports. We also queried workers’ gender and personal experiences of workplace injury to see if those experiences had any effect on their answers.
The upshot was that (1) respondents’ views of injury broadly conformed to media representations and (2) the answers of respondents who had experienced injury in the past year were no different from those of workers who had no personal experience of injury.
We started by asking respondents to estimate the number of serious injuries in Alberta—disabling injuries in WCB terminology. We asked this because newspapers report only a tiny minority of all serious injuries.
While it isn’t possible to ascertain the exact number of newspaper articles published about workplace injuries each year, it is possible to locate all that articles that daily and weekly newspapers submit for indexing with FPInfoTrax. In Alberta, that was on average 32 articles per year between 2009 and 2014. By contrast, in 2016, there were 44,543 serious injuries in Alberta.
What we found was that 97.6% of respondents under-estimated the number of serious injuries, most vastly so. On average, respondents estimated there were 5,545 injuries annually (which is about 11 or 12% of the official number) and almost no one estimated higher than 20,000 injuries.
Personal experience of injury had no significant impact on worker estimates.
We also asked respondents to estimate the ratio of fatalities to serious injuries. We asked about this because newspapers tend to over-report fatalities. The official ratio of was 1 fatality for every 384 serious injuries in Alberta. By contrast, newspapers report three fatalities for every serious injury.
What we found was that the vast majority of respondents over-estimated the ratio of fatalities to serious injuries. Respondents’ average estimate was 1:44.
Again, personal experience of injury had no significant impact on worker estimates.
Our third question asked respondents to select from a list of 9 industry groupings the 3 most injurious industries. We asked this because newspaper coverage centres on industries with relatively low injury rates.
There was significant agreement among respondents (right-hand column) about the most dangerous industries: 91% selected construction, 72% selected mining and petroleum development, and 65% selected agriculture and forestry.
These were the exact same industries that newspapers reported on the most and almost in the same order.
However, the industries with the highest disabling injury rates in Alberta (left-hand column) were entirely different from those selected by respondents and reported on by newspapers. Again, there was no significant difference in the responses between workers who were injured and those who weren’t.
Overall, what these three questions suggest is that workers’ views of injury tended to align with newspaper reports and diverge from the realities of workplace injury. And there was also no evidence that workers’ personal experiences with injury served as any sort of corrective.
The only exception we found to this pattern was in the fourth question, where we asked respondents what proportion of all serious injuries were experienced by women. The correct answer in Alberta was 32.7%.
Overall, the mean answer given by respondents was pretty much bang on the money (33.8%) and men and women were about equally accurate in their estimates.
When you disaggregate the respondents’ answers a bit more nuance appears. Only about 17% of respondents estimated the correct percentage (+/-5%). Inaccurate estimates were split evenly between estimating too high and too low.
While respondents weren’t particularly good at estimating the correct percentage, they were more accurate than newspaper reports. Workers’ more accurate estimates may simply reflect that Alberta newspaper reports were so extremely skewed towards injuries to men (91.7%) that workers pretty much couldn’t help but be more accurate.
Our findings have three main implications.
The first is that workers’ views of workplace injury tend to align more closely with what the media says about workplace injury than with government injury data. Practically speaking, this means that workers’ views of injury frequency and the hazardousness of specific industries are wildly inaccurate.
The second is that workers’ individual experiences of injury appear to have no impact on their perceptions. This sits awkwardly with the usual assumptions about how we construct reality. One possible explanation for this seeming disconnect is that a workers’ personal experience of injury may not have any particular nexus with their estimates of the frequency of injury or the most hazardous industries. That is to say, workers may not generalize from their personal experiences when they consider the risk of injury.
If that is true, workers may then rely heavily on media reports (or some other source of information) to inform their perceptions of injury risk. We think some additional exploration of how workers conceptualize injury and formulate their views of risk would shed some light on that possibility.
Thirdly, that workers have inaccurate views about injury may have public policy implications around injury prevention. For example, if workers, who routinely experience or see workplace injuries, have an overly rosy picture of risk, are the views of the public, employers, and policymakers similarly inaccurate? If so, does this help explain the tendency for governments to underfund and disempower inspectors?
Again, we think some additional research might be fruitful here. Historically, Alberta politicians have tended to downplay the risk of injury, suggesting workplaces are safe and getting safer. It is less clear if the present government holds those views. It is also unclear what government health and safety bureaucrats actually think about injury. And there is simply very little data about public perceptions of workplace injury risk.
-- Bob Barnetson