Creating a Culture of Safety Excellence

by Phil La Duke

There’s been a lot of yapping in the safety community about creating a safety culture and some of it has merit and some of it is just yapping.  In fact, there are a lot of people working in the safety profession who know as much about changing a corporate culture as they do about building an aircraft carrier.

A note about the photos in this week’s blog, I took these photos at the Detroit Institute of Arts, they are images from the mural painted in the courtyard by Diego Rivera.  A masterpiece you can only see in Detroit.


Contrary to what many will tell you, a culture is more than just “how we do things around here” it’s the codified set of behaviors that keep us from killing each other.  People who study corporate culture and change talk about culture in terms of:

  • Norms. Norms are the accepted practices and methods of a population.  Norms determine what the population judges as “normal” and what is “abnormal”.  Norms form the foundation for etiquette and identifies what is polite or impolite.  To a large extent, norms determine an individual’s success.  When new people join a population there are strong incentives to learn and adopt the norms.  One does not feel comfortable until one is completely operating within organizational norms.
  • Habits. The secret to change lies in understanding how our habits to a very large extent determine how we live our lives and whether we become morbidly obese, change-smoking, degenerate gamblers. In his 2012 book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business” Charles Duhigg explores how, despite free will, most of us live our lives doing things that are self-destructive, unpleasant, and that inhibit our success merely out of habit. Duhigg believes that organizations, like individuals, operate largely out of habit, and while it may seem that people at the top of organizations are geniuses or imbeciles, much of a organization’s performance is rooted in habit.
    Habits can be helpful or harmful. Some habits, like getting up early to exercise, carry with them significant benefits, while others, like eating when you’re not hungry, can cause serious, long-term health problems; its no different with organizations and those of you who are looking to change the “safety culture” of your organization should pay very close attention to those habits that are having the greatest influence over the relative safety of the organization.
  • Shared Values & Taboos. Every culture is marked by a collective sense of what is important (values) and the things that are, without exception, unacceptable (taboos).  Shared values not only shape the key decisions made by leaders in an organization, but also make the actions of leaders more predictable which in turn reduces stress and uncertainty in the population.  Taboos make it easy for the entire population to know where the line is and to expect certain and uncompromising reprisals for those who violate a taboo. Shared values and taboos are often informal and unwritten and may well conflict (typically in dysfunctional organizations) with the expressed values or official policies.

Culture versus Climate


A culture is a deeply embedded and codified set of expectations; its largely unconscious—people may aspire to change or direct a culture, but they are seldom successful except when those trying to change.  Cultures are how companies survive and thrive and, as such, it is deeply imbedded in the collective psyche of the population.  Climate, on the other hand, refers to the largely transitive state of the environment.  Climate change is most often driven by an intense outside force that is generally short in duration. The resulting change is typically rapid but it is rarely lasting and things quickly revert back to the old state once the outside force is removed or even lessened.

The term “safety culture” has become muddled by years of misuse and hype by safety vendors who purportedly bring culture change but bring climate change instead.  James Reason, the father of Just Culture, believed that before a company could move to a culture of safety it had to first create a culture of justice.  Throughout the years, a mixture of a confusion over Reason’s teachings and out and out misleading branding created the idea that somehow some companies had a “safety culture” while others did not.

All companies have a safety subculture, in that all companies have norms, habits, values, and taboos related to safety.  So essentially, “safety culture” is a subset of the overall corporate culture and is characterized by:

  • Safety Norms. The things that are accepted practice within safety.  Safety norms can be as simple as the example set by a veteran worker and emulated by new workers or as complex as the ways that workers interact with leadership and the safety function.  Norms are typically the unspoken and even subliminal acceptable ways we do things.  Organizations tend to reward those who follow the norms in safety and punish those who don’t, often without even being conscious of doing so.
  • Work Habits.  All organizations have a slightly different risk tolerance and one company’s killer job is another’s routine work. Risk tolerance is highly influenced by national culture as well as by safety norms and other subcultures.
  • Shared Values & Taboos about Safety. Every organization has an imaginary line when it comes to safety.  Once that line is crossed the individual who crosses it is judged to be reckless and to have taken an unreasonable risk.
  • Something Every Organization Already Has. As I mentioned, every organization has a safety culture, but every organization’s  is unique. Understanding how your culture views the safety of the workforce takes research and an open mind.  It is often extremely useful to have an outside set of eyes (not necessarily a vendor, it could be a customer, or someone from another location) to view your culture and identify the value it places on worker safety.


The leader plays a pivotal role in worker safety and in shaping the culture.  Ideally, the leader’s behaviors are in alignment with the desired, norms, taboos, and habits of the organization, but when they are not, these leaders tend to be pressured out of the organization (although too often they create a great deal of dysfunction before they go).  There are two ways in which leaders influence the corporate culture: how they behave and how they manage.

The Shadow of the Leader

Strong leaders create such a powerful influence that their personalities can be seen in the attitudes and behaviors or those who work for them.  Bellicose tyrannical leaders tend to produce departments where individuals scream and bully other departments to get their own way, where leaders who exhibit a strong ethical sense and who reinforce the values tend to produce people who act likewise; it’s not magic, people have a very strong drive to conform.  So in a very real sense, leaders shape how the organization behaves and make decisions.


Dysfunctional Management Breeds Dysfunctional Operations

It should surprise no one that organizations with poor systems tend to produce a great deal of chaos and a periodic review of policies and procedures is necessary to get better results.

Ultimately, the leader determines whether the workplace will be dysfunctional or productive, and whether or not people will make good decisions or take reckless chances.


Mao said, “all change comes from the barrel of a gun” and I think there’s something to that.  Before people will even consider changing they will explore every option that allows them to keep doing what they’re doing. People will resist change even if they believe it will likely benefit them, why? Because of fear of the unknown. Why do we tell our children not to take candy from strangers when everyone knows that strangers have the best candy? Simple, subconsciously we play out a really simple and pragmatic decision making process: we must assume the unknown will harm us to survive. To foment change we must convince the population that it cannot survive and thrive if we continue to operate in the way we have been. We must make taking the candy from strangers the most attractive, or at least the least loathsome option, and that takes some doing.


One of the best ways to foment change is the financial argument.  Injuring workers costs a LOT of money, and the bulk of the population is either convinced that all management cares about is money or is open to the possibility that operations that aren’t financially successful will be closed, sold, or face pressure to make brutal cuts in benefits and even pay.  Also, tapping into whatever your organization finds most important—whether that be productivity, tonnage shipped, or whatever—and expressing the costs in those terms (we would have to ship an additional hundred tons of cargo to recoup that cost.  It makes an impression.


To some extent, there is, or should be, intrinsic dissatisfaction of the status quo if anyone is getting hurt on the job.  But in cases where there is a fair amount of organizational inertia, fomenting dissatisfaction can be tricky.  Even organizations that ostensibly are dissatisfied with some element of its performances may be fiercely resistant to change.  Dissatisfaction with the end result doesn’t always mean dissatisfaction with the status quo, and many organizations perish because, despite a deep and abiding dissatisfaction with its performance it is not particularly dissatisfied with its current tactics.

Why Does The Organization Have To Change


Dissatisfiers must be compelling and easy for the average person to understand.  True dissatisfaction comes from the answer to the question, “why do we have to change?”  When it comes to worker safety the answers tend to be pretty simple:

  • Changes in Our Business Environment. Applying static solutions to dynamic problems lead to disaster and clinging to those static solutions until it is too late has driven many companies out of business.  The speed at which our business environment changes dictates the speed at which our culture must change to address the outside forces. In safety, the cost of worker injuries (both direct and indirect) are driving changes in our safety strategies and tactics.
  • Changes In Society’s View of Workplace Deaths and Injuries. Both my grandfathers died from workplace injuries. My father and brother-in-law both died of work-related illnesses. I lost a great uncle to a workplace injury, and I’ve lost count of how many friends I’ve lost to workplace injuries.  In many of these cases, people looked at what happened and said, “that’s a shame”. Today, these deaths may well have been prosecuted as homicides! The point is that while there was a time when workplace deaths were seen as unfortunate incidents, society now views them as completely unacceptable.Rising Insurance and Medical Costs.  Rising insurance and medical costs are big news.  For years these costs have sky-rocketed and now are at the point where companies with poor safety performance are finding it difficult to compete.
  • Growth. The business strategies for running a small company aren’t the same as those for running a midsized company which aren’t the same as for running a large company.  Organizations that understand the need to upgrade accounting, IT, and sales systems to accommodate growth often miss the very real need to upgrade safety management systems as well.

Making the Case For Change

IMG_0209_1 When creating dissatisfaction, you have to make the business case for change.  Often, leaders will adopt a “if it aint broke don’t fix it” approach to organizational change; this approach is often dangerous and irresponsible.  When making the case for change you should be able to articulate the answers to these questions:

  • What is it about the current state that is unacceptable?
  • Where would you like to take your organization?
  • What is the difference between where you are and where you would like to be?

The Cost Of Safety

The cost of safety (both direct and indirect) must be calculated and shared in a way that is meaningful to the organization.  Expressing the cost of safety in ways that reflect the corporate culture are key to making safety a priority.  For example, if your corporate culture places a high value on sales, then expressing the costs of safety in terms of the added sales required to replace the money spent on worker injuries is a great way for the organization’s leadership to connect the dots between sales and worker injuries.


Also, it is important that you use actual cost figures and avoid averages, formulas, or other ways to calculate the “true cost of injuries.” These injury calculators use averages derived from figures across all injuries.  Unfortunately, the spectrum of injury costs vary widely and where your particular industry falls on this continuum (or where your company falls on the continuum within your industry) will rarely represent your actual costs.  It’s a lot of work to research and calculate these injury costs but the alternative is for an executive to (rightly) dismiss your figures as conjecture.  In many cases, your figures will be significantly higher than those calculated by formulas any way.  And if you’re figures aren’t particularly compelling (some companies don’t spend much on worker injuries, and may in fact not hurt many workers at all, until they have a catastrophic system breakdown that causes a fatality) you shouldn’t be focusing on cost and shift your attention to something more appropriate to your situation.


Dissatisfaction with a compelling vision for success leads to frustration and dysfunction.

Why Create A Compelling Vision For Success?

Beyond the need for a vision for a better workplace you have to create a vision that makes sense to your organization and to do that you have to create a vision that details precisely what the desired behaviors look like.  In many cases, the desired behaviors are simply a reiteration of your expressed values; getting people to “walk the talk”. Creating a vision for appropriate behaviors should also address norms and confront norms that don’t match the corporate values (“we say we want “’X’ but we do ‘Y’  instead).  The vision should always be crafted such that it remains in the context of the dissatisfaction (“we are doing this because we don’t want “Y” any more”).  You can’t achieve change without changing your organization’s habits and norms.


Creating a Compelling Vision of Success

A compelling vision of success answers the question,  “What do we want our culture to look like?”  While this may sound like an easy question, it can be difficult to answer.  In fact, you need to ask yourself what you need to do not only to create of vision of success, but also to make it reasonable, practical, and achievable? I  can’t answer that question for you; in fact, no one outside your organization can.  While outsiders can facilitate sessions that lead you to answers to these questions, no outsider will ever know your organization better than you do; beware and avoid those who think they know your world better than you do.


Culture And Habit

Many of are norms are really just organizational habits.  In his 2012 book, The Power Of Habit  Charles Duhigg explores how institutional habits effect populations.  According to Duhigg, habits essentially burn a path in our brains which allows for automatic behavior.  This path allows our brain to have a sort of a subroutine that helps to automate behavior.  Duhigg believes that once a habit is truly formed it can never be erased.  The key, Duhigg says, is to overwrite a new, acceptable behavior over the existing undesired one.  Duhigg also believes that there is little difference between personal habits and institutional, or cultural habits.  Habits, according to Duhigg, form a loop.  They begin with a cue, for example boredom, followed by a routine, buying a snack from the vending machine and visiting with coworkers, which leads to a reward, in this case social interaction.  If an individual wants to lose weight and stop ingesting unhealthy calories will have greatest success by keeping the cue and reward the same, but substituting the routine for something healthy, for example walking around the block, while keeping the same reward (that is, social interaction after the routine).


Of course to make these kinds of changes (in your personal life or in your organization) you need to become very aware of the cues and rewards associated with the habit, and this in itself can be very challenging. In my experience an organization’s bad habits around safety tend to manifest most frequently in what I call the Seven Pillars of Safety Excellence.

Focusing On Getting It Right

In safety, it’s easy to focus on the negatives.  Organizations tend to address worker safety in a series of “thou shalt not…” statements.  It’s easy, for example, to create policies that forbid working on energized equipment without first locking out. But these kinds of fiats aren’t all that effective.  People tend to pick and choose which rules they follow and which ones they ignore.  (in fact, I wrote an article on this subject Why We Violate The Rules ).


A better way of effecting lasting change is to work to instill values.  Many companies have their golden rules, or safety commandments, but in a few rare cases there are companies that have created an atmosphere where people behave in a way that truly supports worker safety and a brother’s keeper mentality.  So what’s the difference between the companies who have slogans hanging on the walls and those whose values are manifest in the workplace?   The successful companies make decisions from the top of the organization to the grass roots based on deeply embedded values that model the “right thing to do”.

To mimic these companies’ successes, you should:

  • Plan for Success. This may sound trite, but success is impossible without active planning and a whole lot of work.  No pun intended, but success in worker safety doesn’t happen accidentally, rather, it is the product of hard work on the part of dedicated and talented people.
  • Create a Compelling Vision of Success. I mentioned creating a compelling vision of success before, but it is important enough to repeat it.  A compelling vision of success isn’t a safety slogan or a lofty bit of prose hanging in the corporate headquarters lobby.  A compelling vision of success is a simple statement that clearly illustrates how the organization is going to approach keeping workers out of harm’s way; it’s the things people must do to keep themselves and their coworkers alive and unharmed.
  • Defining desired habits.  It’s not enough to write a list of things people need to do to stay alive, you must also tackle the habits that typically prevent people from doing these things. Using our lockout example, one might include a statement like “we always ensure that energy has been isolated and controlled before attempting maintenance” but unless you also seriously consider the reasons people might  NOT always do this your vision of success doesn’t ring true.  It becomes a platitude instead of a guiding value or governing behavior.  When defining the desired habits you need to take a hard look at “what about when…” statements or “except for…” conditions.  If you don’t address the cues and rewards that lead to dangerous behaviors your vision will fall on deaf ears.

Crafting Next Steps

Schein’s final element of change is next steps.  A dissatisfied population with a compelling vision for success is powerless and rudderless without clear and practical next steps.

I mentioned a moment ago that I would explain what I see as the Seven Pillars of Safety Excellence.

safety house

Early in my career I was fortunate enough to participate in benchmarking the world’s safest companies and in so doing I discovered seven elements essential to achieving safety excellence:


Training isn’t limited to safety training, in fact, the most important training for keeping workers safe is in their core competencies; workers who don’t have mastery of their basic jobs can’t do their jobs safely.

Process Capability

If your process isn’t robust and stable you subject your workers to risk of injuries

Hazard and Risk Management

Removing hazards before people get hurt is the key to a sound safety management system.

Incident Investigation

When we understand and correct the causes of injuries we can prevent them from recurring in other areas.

Strategy Deployment

Too few organizations have any real strategy for safety. Safety strategy involves taking a big-picture look at the safety of the workplace. Safety strategy development should establish periodic reviews of policy to ensure that anachronistic rules, policies, and procedures do not jeopardize worker safety.


Accountability is different than blame.  Safety excellence depends on good systems of accountability that hold employees answerable for the risks they take.


Workers at all levels must be empowered to make sound decisions and to take action to make the workplace safer, but beyond mere empowerment workers must be engaged. Empowered workers are entrusted with the right to make decisions but engaged workers intuitively know the right decisions to make.

These seven elements are typically where a company picks up bad habits.  It’s not that companies don’t do these seven things, rather, it’s HOW they do them that can make or break their efforts at making the workplace safer.

Create a Cultural Infrastructure: Embed Safety Into Your Operational Practices


One of the Pillars of Safety Excellence that stands out for me is engagement.  Engagement at all levels is essential to maintaining a safe and productive workplace.  Engaged workers do things just because it’s the right thing to do. A motivated worker will work to get a reward or safety incentive, but an engaged worker will continually look for ways to make the workplace safer because making the workplace safer is the right thing to do.  It’s in his or her best interest to work safely; it’s in his or her coworker’s best interest to work safely; and it’s in the company’s best interest to work safely.

Never Underestimate the Importance of Empowerment

Creating a common-sense infrastructure around the Seven Pillars of Safety Excellence is the key to creating a safety management system that is not only sustainable, but can morph and grow as your business needs change.  I have helped companies create safety management systems almost ten years ago and not only are these systems still in place, but they are thriving.  In each case, these systems (built around changes to their approach to each of the Seven Pillars) look very different than the ones that I helped these companies design and build.  These systems grew and changed in response to (or in anticipation of) changes in the business climate.

The secret to the success of these systems lie not in what was done, but also what wasn’t done. Essentially, the approach was to sandwich new behaviors between existing, familiar behaviors. By maintaining as much of the existing infrastructure I was able to retain the cues and the rewards, and successfully replace the poorly performing routines with highly effective ones. Even so, the credit goes to my customers who took the time, committed the right people, and spent the resources necessary to identify the cues and rewards and trust in the coaching that they were provided. I learned on those projects that change is more palatable when it is surrounded by things that won’t change.


#accountability, #adopt-the-new-philosophy, #attitude, #attitudes-toward-safety, #problems-cannot-be-solved-by-the-same-level-of-thinking-that-created-them-albert-einstein, #bbs, #behavior-based-safety, #behaviour-based-safety, #brothers-keeper, #calculating-the-cost-of-injuries, #change, #charles-duhigg, #climate, #climate-change, #contingency-planning, #creating-safety-excellence, #culture-change, #detroit, #detroit-institute-of-arts, #diego-rivera, #dissatisfaction, #dont-hurt-yourself, #driver-safety, #driving-while-distracted, #dysfunctional-management, #edgar-schein, #engagement, #fabricating-and-metalworking-magazine, #habits, #just-lea, #leaders-influence-on-worker-safety, #leaders-role-in-safety, #leadership, #mesothelioma, #next-steps, #norms, #phil-la-duke, #phil-laduke, #philip-laduke, #poor-training-makes-the-workplace-unsafe, #safety-climate, #safety-habits, #safety-leadership, #safety-norms, #safety-values, #safety-vision, #shadow-of-the-leader, #shared-taboos, #shared-values, #taboos, #the-cost-of-safety, #the-fightflight-response, #the-future-of-safety, #the-life-coaching-hour, #the-myth-of-95-of-injuries-are-caused-by-unsafe-behaviors, #the-nature-of-mistakes, #the-safe-side, #the-value-of-safety, #training, #vision, #worker-safety, #zero-harm, #zero-injury-targets

When It Comes To Unsafe Behaviors There’s Plenty Of Blame to Go Around

By Phil La Duke

scissors 2

If you’ve made even the most cursory read of my articles and blogs you probably already know that I don’t hold much stock in Behavior Based Safety (BBS).  I believe that except for the odd statistical outlier nut-job, nobody WANTS to get hurt and unless they were designed my the Marquis De Sade you processes aren’t intended to hurt people.  If those two things are true no amount of behavior modification—whether it be incentive programs or telling people to be more careful—is going to change much of anything.  But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe unsafe behavior is the single largest cause of injuries, and if so, we have to manage those behaviors.

Before we can manage unsafe behaviors we have to understand the context in which the behaviors occur.  We can’t take effective action unless we understand precisely why people behaved in an unsafe manner.  A couple of days ago an acquaintance told me about how he had been injured on the job during the third week of February on two consecutive years (he was nervously praying for the first of March to come so he could relax a bit).  “It was my own fault,” he explained, “I was rushing to get things done because my boss was standing over my shoulder saying ‘we gotta get this order out’”.  Unsafe behavior? sure;  the fault of the worker? I don’t think so. Most traditional BBS programs focus on the unsafe behaviors of workers. Productivity is sapped as millions of hours are wasted insisting that supervisors watch people work and coach them on their unsafe behaviors.  Don’t the people whose unsafe decisions and insistence and encouragement of unsafe behaviors bear any culpability in worker injuries? I think they should.

Here are some incredibly unsafe behaviors (attitudes + action) up-stream in the process that organizations need to address:

  • “I Don’t Care How; Just Get It Done.” Whether it’s manufacturing, or construction, or mining or oil and gas there are supervisors, and site managers, and even executives who reward the people who ignore safety protocols and procedure to “get things done”.  This sends a strong message to the workers: you will get rewarded for violating the rules.  Ask these leaders about this behavior and you will likely get a sermon on how they will never tolerate unsafe work and a worker has a right to go home in the same condition…blah, blah, blah.  But when the rubber hits the road and they are faced with falling behind schedule and giving a nod-and-wink “work safe” while telling the workers that the job must get done by Thursday at all costs.  Workers aren’t stupid; they know that they can take risks and nine times out of ten nothing bad will happen.  They understand that probability favors them not getting hurt and if they “get the job done” they will be seen—and more importantly treated—like heroes.  It’s the guys who get things done who get promoted, get the plum assignments, and get fat raises.  They will take unnecessary risks because they are rewarded for doing so, while the people who work safely are punished.  A pizza party at the end of the month for zero loss time injuries can’t compete with the raises, opportunities, and job security afford to those who “get things done”.
  • “I Don’t Care If the Safety Rule Makes It Impossible to Do the Job You Must Follow The Rule.” This behavior is most prevalent among the “command and control” safety professionals who neither know, nor care to know how the work is done.  It’s an ignorance borne out of laziness.  Workers are told they can’t do the job in the most expeditious and efficient manner because doing so is unsafe, are given an unworkable solution, and an expectation to perform to standard. Faced with this choice they take unjustifiable risks, and why wouldn’t they? We can cluck our tongues at the violations of the workers but really whose unsafe behavior is truly to blame for the hazardous situation?
  • “What Can I DO? I Can’t Make Them Work Safely.” In the grand scheme of things there is no such thing as working completely safely.  Sure we can work in ways in which we minimize our risk but even the best set of rules can only protect us from hazards that have been anticipated. It’s tough to anticipate every conceivable hazard in a dynamic and rapidly changing environment.  Too many safety professionals act like institutional eunuchs, trumpeting their emasculation to anyone they think might listen.  The lack of a safe behavior can be the same as an unsafe one.  When safety professionals or supervisors turn a blind eye toward hazards—behavioral or physical—the effect is every bit as dangerous as the unsafe act itself.
  • “I Don’t Have Time”. The lack of time has become the rallying cry for every aspiring martyr. Where the quality of a person’s work was once the measure of his or her performance now, in many organizations, bellyaching about how little time you have has become the new hallmark of an employee’s contribution.  I have heard so many safety professionals, supervisors, and operations managers whine about their lack of time to get everything done that I involuntarily roll my eyes when I hear it.  What am I supposed to do with that information? Praise you for doing a half-assed job? Sympathize because you can’t manage up? Studies have shown that people tend to do work in the following order: tasks they enjoy, tasks that are easy, tasks that are fun, and then everything else.  If you don’t have time for safety—from the maintenance managers who can’t find the time to maintain equipment or repair facility issues to the safety person who can’t find the time to do a proper incident investigation to the materials manager who doesn’t have time to get stock out of the aisle ways, to the site manager who padlocks emergency exits because he doesn’t have time to discipline the people who are using it inappropriately, to the supervisor who doesn’t have time to inspect the work area to ensure it is free of hazards—you need to either reprioritize your work or get out before someone get’s killed.
  • “They Wouldn’t Get Hurt If they would Be More Careful.” Blaming the injured is a staple of many Safety Management systems. I have heard safety professionals describe workers who have suffered repeat injuries “frequent flyers” and plant managers insist that workers are hurt “primarily because they take short cuts to get more ass time”.  I have heard that safety is everyone’s job so many times that I want to vomit.  If safety truly is everyone’s job then where is the culpability for those of us who make decisions who jeopardize the safety of others?

So maybe behavior is a key component in worker safety, and maybe we bear some responsibility for our own behavior.  If safety truly is everyone’s job than there is blood on our hands every time someone gets injured on our watch.  We bear as much of the responsibility for the gore and carnage as anyone. Maybe it’s time we take a hard look at OUR behavior before we start pointing fingers of shame at the injured worker.  Maybe it’s time for us to ask ourselves what did we do TODAY to help worker’s make safe decisions? Maybe it’s time to turn the lens of judgment on ourselves and ask what we could have done to prevent the injury that took the life of a coworker, and how we will change our OWN behavior to help workers make better, safer choices from now on.

#88-of-injuries-caused-by-unsafe-behavior, #at-risk-behavior, #behavior-based-safety, #improving-worker-safety, #safety, #the-myth-of-95-of-injuries-are-caused-by-unsafe-behaviors, #worker-safety

63.28% of All Statistics are Made Up

By Phil La Duke 

Statistics are tricky.  Because they are expressions of probability one can be mislead by statistic, as the old saying goes, “statistics lie, and liars use statistics”. In the world of safety perhaps the most widely quoted, pervasive, and well…just plain wrong, statistic is that 95% of all injuries are caused by unsafe behaviors.  It’s a tidy and convenient statistic that is cherished by both Operations and Safety professionals.  People like this statistic, chiefly because it puts the onus on the worker for staying safe.  It holds, that 95% of all injured workers are to blame for their injuries (or at a minimum, another worker’s behavior is responsible for their injury.) It lets both companies and safety professionals off the hook—they can’t be held culpable for workers who refuse to work safely.

Unfortunately, there are serious issues with this statistic. In 2001, noted safety theorist, Fred A. Manuele, published “Heinrich Revisited: Truisms or Myths”  (Herbert William Heinrich was an insurance professional who, in the 1930s investigated the causes of workplace injuries).  Manuele set out to study the origins of this statistics and basically to determine the veracity of this statistic. The book is a great read, and all those ninnies who are out there proclaim these statistics as Gospel should read it.  I won’t take a great deal of time dissecting it (like I said, buy the man’s book), but I think there are some observations of which safety professionals should be aware (the following are :

  • The Research is Not Replicable Heinrich either didn’t keep records of his research, didn’t keep it, or it has been lost. Some safety professionals (not necessarily Manuele) interpret this as indicative that Heinrich made up his findings.  I personally doubt that Heinrich faked his work or made up his findings, but under the scientific method, one is expected to keep records of one’s research so that your professional peers can review it and critic it before publication.  So if there is no research there can be no peer review and the work is not accepted as valid. So Heinrich’s work was the 1930’s version of a blog, an opinion piece that (like every good urban legend) made sense and sounded right to people eager to believe it.
  • That Was Then. This is Now. Manuele points out that Heinrich conducted his research in the 1920’s a scant nine years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that created an uproar that ushered in workplace safety reforms. As Manuele observed, so much has changed in workplace safety that 70-year old research needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
  •  Psychology Is Not A Cure All.  Manuele points out that Heinrich greatly over estimated the role of psychology in accident causation.  Heinrich believed that psychology was of “a fundamental of great importance in accident causation” and his love of, and rabid belief in, psychology blinded him to other, potentially more important contributors to injuries. It’s not that Heinrich’s beliefs in psychology were misguided—understanding why people make mistakes, make bad decisions, and take risks is of paramount importance in safety—but the belief that Skinnerian behavior modification could somehow make the workplace safer was misguided.  Heinrich can be forgiven for embracing these theories. Freud, Jung, Skinner, and other founding fathers of psychology were still doing important research and publishing findings.  But unlike the work of these behavioral scientists, little to no follow up has advanced Heinrich’s theories.
  • Many of Heinrich’s Other Conclusions Are Even more Specious. Some of Heinrich’s other conclusions directly conflict with the research and findings of later, more respected management experts like W. Edwards Deming and Peter Drucker.  Deming in particular found that root causes of process failures (of which injuries are a symptom) grew out of flaws in management systems. In short, management research from the 1950’s on tend to call Heinrich’s findings into question.
  • Like Many Of His Time, Heinrich Believed That Automation Was the Answer To All Of Life’s Problem’s.  Walter Ruther believed that “automation will be the salvation of the working man.”  Ruther believed that machines would one day do the most dangerous jobs.  Heinrich shared this belief, and like many contemporaries believed that “man failure is the heart of the problem and the methods of control must be directed toward man failure.” This belief was the prevalent opinion in business in the 1920’s and 30’s. But the work of Drucker and Deming supported a more enlightened view of industry.  In their view, workers possess invaluable information relating to process capability and overall process improvement.  As jobs become more and more sophisticated, they typically require workers who are able to think and make sound decisions to keep the process operating.
  • Heinrich Was Kind Of a Bigot. Like many of his day, Heinrich believed that people of a certain ancestry or from a given socioeconomic background were intrinsically…well, stupid.   In the minds of many, these people were pretty much incapable of learning to do things without hurting themselves.  It is easy to see how someone of this belief set could, subconsciously conclude that workers of a given ethnicity would be responsible for 95% of all accidents.  It’s worth noting that Heinrich’s research was conducted in the 1930’s, before the Nazi atrocities pretty much killed off the idea of eugenics.  World War II forever changed the landscape of behavioral science and  theories based on the belief that one race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background being intrinsically biologically or intellectually superior quickly went out of vogue.
  • Most of Heinrich’s Conclusions Were Based on Anecdotal Evidence.  From what little we know about Heinrich’s research we know that he asked supervisors what they THOUGHT the causes of injuries were.  He didn’t conduct any formal accident investigations nor did he (as far as anyone can tell) talk to the injured workers, many of whom were likely dismissed as unfit for duty.

An entire industry has grown out of research of questionable methods, from a time when industrial processes were largely a simple adaptation of agricultural methods that were conducted by a man who had more in common with the Nazi’s than with Deming.  People have trouble abandoning a business philosophy that is paying their kids college tuition.  But isn’t about time that we stop giving Heinrich’s theories the same weight and credibility as someone who uses modern scientific methods and produced replicable research that is reviewed and analyzed by his or her peers?


#criticisms-of-bbs, #criticisms-of-heinrichs-pyramid, #the-myth-of-95-of-injuries-are-caused-by-unsafe-behaviors