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Who Was HW Heinrich, What Did He Do and Why Should You Care?
Who was HW Heinrich?
You may or may not have heard of Herbert William Heinrich, but if you’re involved in occupational safety, you’ve certainly heard his ideas.
He was born in 1881 in Bennington, Vermont, USA. He worked as a machinist and was promoted to third assistant engineer before joining Traveler Insurance Company, where he became assistant director of engineering and inspection. He retired from there in 1956 and died in 1962.
What did HW Heinrich do?
Contrary to many who try to put him down, Heinrich was not an “insurance salesman”. He was a qualified engineer who lectured on safety at New York University for more than 20 years. During World War I, he served as an engineer in the US Navy. During World War II, he was appointed Chairman of the Safety Division of the US Army War Advisory Board and in 1961 became a Fellow of the American Society of Safety Engineers.
The thing he is remembered for is his book Prevention of industrial accidents: a scientific approach. The first edition appeared in 1931 and he published 3 revisions in 1941, 1950 and 1959.
Why you should care
If you work in any position in the safety field, you should care because the concepts of injury causation and prevention that are common today were first proposed by Heinrich. The most enduring of Heinrich’s concepts were:
- there is a mathematical relationship between the number of accidents of a similar type and their severity;
- the most common cause of accidents at work is the unsafe behavior of employees; and
- a reduction in the overall frequency of occupational injuries leads to a corresponding reduction in the number of serious injuries.
These are the foundations of many current safety programs such as Behavioral Safety; Zero harm (or zero nothing) and so on, strongly advocated by consulting firms and embraced by businesses and safety professionals.
So what were these concepts?
Heinrich’s loss control triangle
Heinrich obtained data on work injuries both from insurance claims and from workplaces (usually bosses). None of this data is available today, and there is not enough information in Heinrich’s books or notes to reproduce it.
Based on data analysis, Heinrich proposed that for every major injury, there are 29 minor injuries and 300 non-injury accidents. Most people working in health and safety will have seen some variation of this formula in presentations that include different colored triangles with horizontal bars representing the different severities of injuries and the relationships between them. They are most commonly used by proponents of Behavioral Based Safety (BBS) programs and are often referred to as Heinrich’s Triangle or Bird’s Triangle (after Frank Bird, who modified Heinrich’s classifications in 1969).
Heinrich did not initially qualify his discussion of these ratios. By the Fourth Revision (1959), however, they only applied to similar cases involving the same person with similar causes.
Heinrich’s classification of severity was also very different from what is commonly discussed in presentations using the concept today. Heinrich considered a major injury to be one that requires a claim to be made to an insurer for compensation or notification to a state regulatory agency, regardless of the actual severity of the injury. A minor injury is considered a first aid injury in today’s parlance, and no injury is nearly over. Bird reviewed these classifications and the actual relationships between them, and refined the results, showing that they differed from job to job and time to time.
Heinrich’s theories on the causation and prevention of accidents
- 88% of work accidents were caused by unsafe actions (usually by the injured party);
- 10% of occupational accidents were the result of unsafe equipment or conditions; and
- the remaining 2% were unavoidable.
In his domino theory, Heinrich argued that injuries result from accidents; accidents caused by unsafe acts, which in turn occurred due to human fault, originating in the social environment. The best way to prevent injuries is to stop accidents. Because unsafe acts were the immediate cause of accidents, their elimination was the most effective focus of injury prevention programs. Does this sound familiar? It should also support BBS and other psychology-based safety programs – changing worker behavior is a key tool for reducing the number and severity of occupational accidents.
Many other topics are covered in the nearly 500-page book, but these are the concepts that people encounter most often – even if Heinrich is rarely credited as the originator of these ideas. So, despite what it may seem like, these ideas are not new, but have become a truism in the safety industry. However, given their age, they should not be blindly accepted, but should be re-examined in the light of today’s workplaces and working practices.
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