Advancements in information technology give us the opportunity "to transform our society," particularly when it comes to environmental, health and safety efforts.

That was just one of many pearls of wisdom that former Alcoa CEO Paul O'Neill offered to an appreciative audience Tuesday at the 2013 National Safety Congress and Expo in Chicago.

O'Neill, who received the National Safety Council's President's Award at the event, said the development of a safety-data system at Alcoa was a catalyst for dramatic improvements in the company's safety record during his 13-year tenure.

Shortly after O'Neill took the helm at Pittsburgh-based Alcoa in 1987, he tasked several Carnegie Mellon University graduates to develop the IT infrastructure for a real-time safety-reporting system. O'Neill's vision was to have Alcoa facilities post all injuries and incidents within 24 hours after they occur, along with the corresponding root-cause analyses and corrective actions.

Much to the chagrin of Alcoa's legal counsel, O'Neill wanted the reports to include the names of the employees involved.

"Because one of the things I've learned is if you're managing numbers, it feels a lot different than if you're dealing with individuals, human lives and injuries to people," O'Neill said.

"So if somebody got hurt, I didn't want to penalize them by calling their name out. But I wanted their co-workers to know, 'My friend got hurt. This is another human being. This is not about OSHA recordable rates or something – this is about individual human beings who are part of our family.'"

O'Neill emphasized that the health care industry – which has an abysmal worker-safety record – would benefit greatly from the same type of transparency in its reporting of workplace injuries as well as patient-care performance.

O'Neill, who served as the secretary of the U.S. Treasury for two years under President George W. Bush, wrote a letter to President Obama this past December. In the letter, O'Neill urged Obama to direct all VA hospitals and U.S.-based military hospitals to begin reporting all hospital-acquired infections, patient falls, medication errors and caregiver injuries within 24 hours of their occurrence.

"Think about what it would be like if we, as consumers, all had real-time information about the quality or lack of quality of the institutions that are supposed to create better health status and medical outcomes, and we could see how they're doing by their work force," O'Neill said. "I believe it would mobilize our society" to improve safety and quality in our health care system.