Safety Culture / Psychology

What was Heinrich thinking?

New research refutes old assumptions

August 2, 2011
 For many years safety and health professionals, and the companies that employ them, have been diligently seeking the most effective means of achieving and sustaining high safety performance. Numerous safety intervention programs either provide this service or assist professionals and their companies in achieving these goals.

 Targeting the worker

Since it is employees who become injured or suffer fatalities, many safety intervention programs target the employee and his or her behavior as the cause of these incidents. This belief seems to have its alleged legitimacy strengthened by Heinrich, who postulated that as many as 85 percent of injuries and fatalities are caused by employees’ unsafe acts.1 Heinrich’s conclusions were based on thousands of accident reports, completed by supervisors who usually blamed employees for causing their accidents.2

There was no scientific basis for Heinrich’s conclusions.2 In other words, this assertion has never been scientifically studied. However, this assumption has generally been used — and is currently being used — as the basis for various safety interventions. In order to employ such an intervention, the assumption seemingly must be made that employees cannot or will not work safely. If an employee cannot work safely, that would seem to indicate that the employee was not properly selected or trained for his/her position, the production rate is emphasized over safety, or equipment malfunction or breakdown occurs because of an insufficient preventative maintenance program, among other factors. And it is difficult to believe that employees would simply be unwilling to work safely, thereby risking injury or worse.

 Scientific study of safety

As it turns out, scientific research statistically correlating employee behavior with the cause of injuries and other mishaps is virtually impossible. Before conducting any scientific study, the researcher must adhere to the rigid protocol of research design. One of the elements of this protocol involves the elimination of any other variables that, in this case, might be causing injuries, as well as any variables that may be influencing employee behavior. Examples of these variables include:3

• Organizational culture

• Production pressures

• Ineffective communication

• Psychological stress: Work-related, financial, marital, etc.

• Mental and physical capability to perform task(s)

• Injury and accident investigations: Are root cause analyses conducted?

• Job complexity

• Adequacy of training

• Fatigue

• Maintenance errors

• The environment: Temperature, air quality, humidity, etc.

• Overtime

 Safety performance in a company involves two aspects: the safety program and the safety process. The safety program deals with compliance and legislative issues. The safety process involves those factors within the organization that either help or hinder the safety program. A company cannot have an optimal safety performance without both of these elements in place, with the safety process complementing the safety program.

In the 12/7/10 online issue of ISHN, Resnick4 strongly suggested that safety practitioners become aware of and begin to incorporate scientifically valid applied research findings into the way they practice their profession. When applied scientific research findings are used, especially those that are replicated by independent research studies, they can directly relate to an increased level of safety performance. Erickson’s original research of the effect on corporate culture on injury rates provides such an example.5

 New research results

In August of 2010, new evidence was published demonstrating findings in exact opposition to those of Heinrich. This nationwide research demonstrates that more than 85 percent of employees rate safety, among all labor standards, as first in importance. The study, “Public Attitudes toward and Experiences with Workplace Safety,” a meta-analysis, was conducted from 2001 to 2010 by The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.6

For too long the safety profession has relied on scientifically unproven, yet frequently used, means of reducing injuries by targeting those who sustain the injuries. Given this recent finding that 85 percent of employees care about their safety before all other labor issues, it would appear that many popular safety intervention programs are targeting the wrong cause of workplace injuries.

Safety performance occurs in a context, and that context is the organization. There is a scientifically valid association between safety performance and what the organization values.5 Therefore, to treat safety in isolation, as if it has nothing to do with the rest of the organization, only addresses the symptoms, not the causes, of the injuries. There are many aspects of organizational functioning over which neither the employee nor the safety professional has any control. For example, how many safety professionals are directly involved in the selection of employees? How many of them have decision-making authority over the types of equipment and tools that are purchased? Do safety professionals have any influence as to whether or not employee suggestions are encouraged, let alone implemented? Do safety professionals determine how work is scheduled? The answers are that they generally do not. These issues are usually under the purview of the company and its value system, or management philosophy, or organizational or corporate culture. Yet every one of these seemingly non-safety concerns has a direct effect on the level of safety performance in a company.5

 Applying scientific research

For the sake of the safety profession, and the safety and health of workers, safety professionals must become aware of the applied scientific research that has statistically demonstrated positive relationships between applications of their findings and higher safety performance. Not only do such applications save time, money and effort, they can also provide a safer workplace.

This recent research report has tremendous potential implications for the way safety professionals assume their responsibilities. Maybe now safety interventions that target employees will diminish and allow for more scientific assessments of the causal relationships of workplace injuries.

 Judith A. Erickson, Ph.D. is president of Erickson Associates in Plano, Texas. She can be reached at (972) 306-6231. Erickson Associates scientifically and quantitatively assesses companies’ cultures and safety programs to assist them in achieving optimal safety performance.

 

References

 1 Heinrich, H.W. (1931). Industrial accident prevention: a scientific approach. McGraw-Hill.

2 Manuele, F.A. (2002). Heinrich revisited: Truisms or myths. Chicago: National Safety Council.

3 Erickson, J.A. (2001, Feb. 15-16). Increasing Safety Performance by Working within the Organization. Proceedings from the Behavioral Safety Symposium: The Next Step. American Society of Safety Engineers, Orlando, Florida.

4 Resnick, M. (2010, Dec. 7). From the ivory tower to the workplace. http://www.ishn.com/copyright/BNP_GUID_9-5-2006_A_10000000000000955541?vie...

5 Erickson, J.A. (1994). The effect of corporate culture on injury and illness rates within the organization. Dissertation Abstracts International, (55)6.

6 Public Attitudes towards and Experiences with Workplace Safety. (2010, August). Principal Investigator: Smith, T.W. National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Funded by: Washington, D.C.: Public Welfare Foundation.

 

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