Revisiting Heinrich and His Triangle

… theories change, pendulums swing and yesterdays’ ideas give way to todays. Some safety theorists seem to look at these two positions as incompatible based on real-world limited resources available to pursue multiple incident reduction strategies. Maybe, but I am convinced that both approaches have value and both can be managed effectively with efficient safety management software.

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By: Thomas Carson

I recently received feedback on my Colorado Safety Association presentation asserting the value of collecting, analyzing and responding to the minor incidents and close calls that fall in the lower half of the Heinrich Safety Triangle. I was so thrilled to learn that a scholar had read my blog that I was insufferable for a week – or so my wife tells me!

The essence of his position was that Heinrich’s theory was supplanted some time ago by the position that while there were some initial gains in incident reduction, the root causes of serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs) were so different from minor injuries and incidents as to not be helpful in driving meaningful reduction of SIFs. Even worse, focus on the minor events at the bottom of Heinrichs’ triangle diverted attention from the possibly more useful examination of SIFs.

There is certainly support for that position: Thomas Krause in 7 Insights Into Safety Leadership talked about this at some length, and concluded that larger, more sustainable reductions in SIFs come from thorough root cause analysis of serious incidents and acting on those findings. As sometimes happens, theories change, pendulums swing and yesterdays’ ideas give way to todays. Some safety theorists seem to look at these two positions as incompatible based on real-world limited resources available to pursue multiple incident reduction strategies. Maybe, but I am convinced that both approaches have value and both can be managed effectively with efficient safety management software.

Let’s look at a hypothetical case of a manufacturing company with 1,000 employees experiencing a 3% OSHA recordable rate. This means that there will be 30 injuries serious enough to be recordable in a year – roughly an OSHA average but clearly with room for improvement. Assume that we conduct thorough investigations of each of these incidents, and that some will be fairly clear-cut, some will be complicated. Lots of factors determine the resources required for a competent root cause investigation. They could take 4 hours or 40 weeks – some investigations get mired in politics and take years! If the average time required is say 160 hours, or a month, then we will spend at most 4,600 hours, or a little over two full-time person-hours to investigate these incidents. I say at most, because it is unlikely all 30 incidents will be SIFs.

At the same time these investigations into SIFs are taking place, employees in a moderately engaged workplace will be submitting on average 150 observations per month, or 1,800 for the year. Observations in this case are both observed behavior and reports of substandard conditions needing attention. Both identify situations that offer opportunities for workplace improvement, some portion of which will in fact contribute to incident reduction. This isn’t just theoretical – we have seen this based on actual trend data from our customers.

I suggest that in our example, it would be an unusual 1,000 employee company that could not manage the resources to run both of these different processes and both have value. Specific analyses of SIFs nearly always provide lessons to be learned, and in any case are largely mandated by insurors and/or government. Observations “from the bottom” unquestionably identify and resolve conditions that can be precursors to major incidents when appropriately filtered by a skilled safety team. There is an additional significant organizational value: the cultural impact of engaging employees with a system that is easy to use AND provides for appropriate feedback on their contributions leads to broader cultural gains through engaged participation across the organization that extend to non-safety areas such quality and performance gains.

This is an important discussion – please share your thoughts and let’s get better together!

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