Notes from NSC: Is Heinrich’s Safety Triangle Wrong?

A new report from the Campbell Institute recommends a redesign of Heinrich’s safety triangle, which states that for every major injury (the point of the triangle), there are 29 minor injuries and 300 non-injury incidents. The triangle treats minor incidents and near misses as if they had potential to be fatalities or serious injuries.

The report, Serious Injury and Fatality Prevention: Perspectives and Practices, notes that despite gains in safety in the past 20 years – the total recordable incident rate dropped from 8.5 incidents per 200,000 hours worked in 1993 to 3.0 incidents per 200,000 working hours in 2016 – fatal incidents and serious, life-altering injuries have not decreased. The National Safety Council reports that worker fatalities are at an eight-year high, with 5,190 workers dying of fatal injuries in 2016.

“Companies in our report know that safety is a work-in-progress with the goal of continuous improvement,” said John Dony, director of the Campbell Institute, the center of excellence for environmental, health and safety at NSC. “To be at the top of their game, these companies recognize that they have to do more to protect their workers. While such incidents may not occur with frequency, implementing a serious injuries and fatalities prevention program is how these organizations move to the next level of maturity.”

Released during the 2018 National Safety Council Congress and Expo, the report takes an in-depth look at serious injuries and fatalities and illustrates a new prevention model suggested by safety experts in recent years. It recommends a redesign of the classic safety triangle, which consists of non-injury accidents, minor injuries and major injuries. This model treats all minor incidents and near misses as if they had the potential to result in a more serious injury or fatality and diverts attention away from the incidents that have the most potential to result in something serious.

The report states: “While this triangle was accepted as the gold standard for many years, safety professionals today realize that there is a flaw in this theory, namely that not all non-injury incidents are equal in terms of their potential for resulting in serious injuries and fatalities (SIF). Only some near misses have the precursors that could lead to recordable injuries, lost-time injuries and even fatalities. In order to prevent SIF from occurring, many organizations have realized that they cannot look at the entire triangle, at least not in the way Heinrich originally conceived of it. Instead, they have to isolate that part of the triangle with the potential for SIF and prevent those incidents from occurring.”

The updated structure is based on identifying the root causes and contextual factors that lead to serious injuries and fatalities on the job. While a fatality is easy to identify, a serious injury could be defined differently by different organizations. The report defines a serious injury as one that is life-threatening or life-altering. To reduce serious injuries and fatalities, the report suggests that organizations do not need to “fix the worker,” they need to redesign work processes to eliminate the potential for human error. This makes safety less dependent on employee behavior and more dependent on the safety system.

The report highlights how several organizations have developed serious injury and fatal incident prevention programs and offers examples of how they did it.

Learn more about organizational commitment to safety and how to build a strong business case for it by accessing our on-demand webinar, Top Management: Demonstrating your Commitment to Safety.



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About Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the Director of Global Content and Brand for Intelex Technologies. Formerly the Content Director for EHS Today, she has been writing about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990. Her work as a journalist and editor has been recognized with national and international awards. She has been interviewed about occupational safety and health for national business publications, documentaries and television programs; has served as a panelist on roundtables; and has been the keynote speaker for occupational safety and health conferences.

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