Date: January 2016
Individual privacy and accident investigations could conflict with each other if appropriate steps are not taken.
Minnesota employers have a statutory responsibility to ensure a safe work environment for employees. Minnesota Statutes Section 182.676 requires every public or private employer of more than 25 employees to establish a safety committee. Minnesota OSHA Rule 5208.0050 further requires that “the committee shall review incidents resulting in work-related deaths, injuries and illnesses and make recommendations to prevent further occurrences.”
Interestingly, the very rule that helps ensure a safe work environment for employees has the potential of violating an individual’s privacy under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (MGDPA), Minnesota Statutes Chapter 13.
Safety Committee Role
An injury or illness that occurs in the workplace requires a prompt accident investigation by the injured worker’s supervisor. The supervisor’s investigation includes an accident report, which is forwarded to the safety committee for review.
The safety committee evaluates the accident report, paying special attention to causes and corrective actions. If the safety committee determines that the cause of the incident, as reported by the supervisor, is incorrect or lacks sufficient information to make a determination of cause, the report is returned to the supervisor for clarification.
Once the safety committee and the supervisor concur on the cause of the accident, the committee reviews the corrective actions recommended by the supervisor to ensure they are appropriate. When considering whether the recommendations are appropriate, the safety committee must determine if the recommendations: 1) will mitigate or prevent a reoccurrence of the incident; 2) are within the authority of the safety committee; and 3) are feasible given the capabilities of the organization.
The Conflict of Individual Privacy and Accident Investigations
Individual privacy and accident investigations must be considered. Information shared with the safety committee from the supervisor’s written accident report cannot include personal information or private data about the injured employee. To do so may violate the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, which specifically precludes the release of certain data on individuals.
The Act defines data on an individual as, “all government data in which any individual is or can be identified as the subject of that data, unless the appearance of the name or other identifying data can be clearly demonstrated to be only incidental to the data and the data are not accessed by the name or other identifying data of any individual” (Minn. Stat. § 13.02).
The statutory provisions along with other data privacy requirements limit access to private data on individuals to those persons within the entity who have a need to know. It is also against the law for members of the safety committee to discuss or disseminate protected information to which they may have access.
Does a Safety Committee Need to Know Private Information?
Safety committees can thoroughly and effectively perform their duties without having access to personal, private information about the injured employee. Distribution or discussion of private information by the committee can subject them to civil litigation where the injured employee alleges the group inappropriately discussed or released private data.
An employer’s efforts to provide a safe work environment should not expose the organization, supervisors or the safety committee to risk. It is important that the collection and use of accident investigation reports and any work product of the safety committee comply with the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.
MCIT has compiled general recommendations to help supervisors and safety committees effectively perform their work.
Accident investigation reports must include the:
- circumstances of the accident.
- cause of the accident.
- recommended corrective actions.
Supervisors may also choose to include the following in the accident investigation report:
- the nature of the injury.
- any other general information that may be helpful in analyzing the incident.
Information shared with the safety committee from the supervisor’s accident investigation report must not include:
- Social Security numbers.
- employee numbers.
- treating facilities.
- any personal information that may identify the victim.
Safety committee discussion and work product must not include information protected by the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, even when it is provided in the supervisor’s accident report.
The purpose of the safety committee is to evaluate work-related incidents and make recommendations to prevent further occurrences. Personal information is not needed to determine the actual cause of the incident and whether the proposed corrective actions are appropriate.
The identity of the injured employee cannot affect the work of the committee. The safety committee may choose to use a summary report of the accident rather than review the complete accident investigation form. By following these recommendations, management can work toward maximizing its safety efforts within the parameters of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.
Types of Data Collection Forms
- Accident Investigation Form
- Incident Form (OSHA 301)
- First Report of Injury
- Internal reporting documents