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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

Wisdom of the crowd

PETER BATEMAN talks to the inventor of a free app which eliminates barriers to incident reporting and helps build an evidence base to identify key areas of risk.

Martin McMullan whips out his smartphone and shows me the NZ Transport Agency’s Zero Harm reporting app. It’s a glimpse into the future, or it would be if the future didn’t keep arriving so damned quickly.

In well under a year the app has embedded itself within the Transport Agency’s own employees and those of its tier 1 contractors, and is now spreading in modified form to all kinds of businesses. A member of the public even used it to report a problem with a contractor’s truck as it was driving along a highway.

And it’s free and available to any business.

Development of the app – only launched in January – won NZTA the best initiative by a large organisation category at this year’s NZ Workplace Health & Safety Awards. The project was led by McMullan, Zero Harm manager, who lists computer programming as one of his interests. “We were lucky to have a blank sheet of paper around incident notification reporting, so we took the time to do it ourselves rather than buy an off-the-shelf product and adapt our needs to it.”

Those needs, he says, were felt not only by the Transport Agency but by its tier one contractors and the wider civil construction sector: people often did not know how to report incidents or near misses; or if they did know, it often required filling in a paper form, which took them away from their regular task and was time-consuming (so they often would forget or simply not bother, especially if time had elapsed between the incident and the opportunity to fill out a form).

At the same time as recognising this barrier to reporting, the Agency was looking for higher quality incident data to use as feedback, so it could assess how well its risk mitigation measures were working, and could identify new areas of risk that it should pay attention to.

The Zero Harm reporting app meets all those needs. People from the Agency and its tier one contractors download the app onto their phones and are ready to go. If an incident or near miss happens, they can fire up the app wherever they are, enter brief details, and get on with their work, secure in the knowledge that their report or suggestion will get to the Agency immediately and then be redirected to the person best placed to respond to any required action. The app also automatically records their geographic location.

The Transport Agency uses the back office function of the app to monitor reports as they come in and work out appropriate responses, which include alerting their main contractors to an issue so they can do something about it.

“As a client we can be quite distant from the guys on the ground,” says McMullan. “We get this information and then cascade it down to where it needs to get to. As a PCBU that’s the right way of doing things.”

He stresses it’s not about acting as some kind of policeman – it’s about being a client who can enhance what its main contractors are already doing, and who can provide a simple conduit for lower level contractors working in often remote and always dynamic environments to get important information to the main contractors. “They’re all part of the NZTA family. We want to make it easy for anyone to work with us.”


It’s also essential to respond to the person who made the report – otherwise they might give up and stop reporting. Even if the acknowledgment is simply to say that the Agency has considered it but decided not to take any action for now. “Even if you’re not going to do anything about it, you’ve got to provide that feedback. Being honest is far better than not getting back to them at all.”

The uptake has been spectacular. the Agency now receives around 50 reports a week – incidents, near misses, suggestions for improvement. Before the app, the average was 48 reports a year.

One such report came from a member of the public whose smartphone had the app loaded, and who spotted a contractor’s vehicle driving along a main highway with stones and other spoil falling out the back through a gap in the steel caused, it turned out, by rust and a welding repair failure. Incident reported, with registration number. Someone was soon on the phone to the contractor and the truck was taken off the road and fixed.

“How would a member of public have got that information through before? It would’ve been too difficult.”


This flood of incident reports has enabled NZTA to become a lot smarter in how it manages and responds to risk. It completes the feedback loop: the Agency might think that, for example, falls from height is a particular issue and devise some interventions around that. Within a couple of months the app’s data will indicate if those interventions have had any effect – or if, in fact, it is some other risk – confined space work, for example – that is causing most problems.

“The data lets us verify our risk assessments. It also helps us build a business case for a particular initiative, and gives us feedback on how effective that initiative has been – which can bolster the next business case. It brings some maturity to how we do health and safety.”

In effect, says McMullan, the app generates lead indicators: having captured the incidents, what did the organisation learn, and what is it going to do about it in the next period?


People can also use the app to enter suggestions for improvement – and they do. Suggestions implemented include fitting heads-up displays in some vehicles so that speed is easier to monitor, and an arrangement with a cafe halfway between Auckland and Whangarei where staff can pop in for a fatigue break and get lunch or a coffee.

“It can be a long drive in a day’s work. It’s about encouraging our people to manage fatigue. We’ll pick up the tab.”

The Code of Practice for Temporary Traffic Management has its own particular requirements for reporting incidents which the app doesn’t currently handle, forcing workers to send incidents via an email instead – a barrier to reporting. From early 2016 these issues will be reportable through the app and will go direct to the person in charge of traffic management.

“It’s that seamless enablement of our people – they can get the information through to us, regardless of where it has to go to. The app will get it there – they just have to let us know what the issue is.”

Again, it’s all about removing barriers to reporting and acknowledging how the world has changed. He uses the analogy of contacting the prime minister. Ten years ago it would have been difficult for an ordinary person to get a message to the PM. “Now you can do it via Twitter.”


Making the app available to companies outside the Agency’s “family” was always part of the development agenda, and now it has happened. A different version of the app has been developed and made freely available, through Civil Contractors New Zealand, to any business which wants it. The website is

McMullan says there are now over 350 businesses actively using it, small and large, from many different sectors – agriculture, fishing, construction. “The uptake’s been brilliant. It’s not just NZTA’s traditional customers. It’s there for New Zealanders to use. We don’t get to see their data – it’s theirs.”

Each business which uses the app can customise it with their own logo and choice of background colour. Each one gets its own PIN number which it issues to its staff and any contractors it uses, so they can report via smartphone. Each business also gets private back office access to its data so it can do its own analysis and response.

NZTA can see only a limited view of this data: a summary of the incident, the industry sector and region. The company and exact location is unavailable to it, but the aggregated data gives it a view of broad incident trends by sector and region.

McMullan says they are talking to the Forest Industry Safety Council about developing a forestry-specific version of the app, and he is happy to work with other industries in similar vein. “We get lots of queries about the app through the app!”

Helping other sectors, he says, is part of the Agency’s contribution to the government’s goal of reducing work fatalities and serious injuries by 25 percent by 2020. “WorkSafe and ACC aren’t going to do that alone. We are a government agency. Through our procurement power and ability to influence we have a massive role to play in helping achieve that goal.”


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