Historically, organizations have adopted one of two approaches to maintain worker safety: Control the environment or control the worker. Both have upsides, such as verifiable results and performance-based safety, but they also are flawed in that each requires near total control—an impossibility. A more successful approach is one in which the physical environment is managed and a positive safety climate encouraged. The control aspect is delegated down to the individual. In short, safety is a choice made multiple times at all levels, and the ability to choose right is the heart of a strong safety culture.
An individual-centered approach entails certain challenges and risks. It is difficult for the leader to relinquish control and for the team to buy in to such an approach, as it assumes a baseline level of good decision-making capability by all members. It is important, therefore, to establish an environment in which any worker can turn up the safety “thermostat” whenever he or she deems necessary.
Understanding what it means to be safe—to be “protected, not exposed to danger or risk; not likely to be harmed”—is straightforward and uncontroversial.1 According to the National Safety Council’s 14 Elements of a Successful Safety and Health Program, such a program recognizes hazards early and addresses them effectively—a worthy goal, but largely a reactive process. A culture of safety is one in which the idea of safety is first inculcated into the hearts and minds of both management and workers such that the process emerges organically and evolves as both the environment and workers change.
In 1941, H. W. Heinrich published Industrial Accident Prevention, A Scientific Approach, in which he concluded that 88 percent of all industrial accidents were caused by unsafe acts. The primary factors contributing to these acts were “ancestry/social environment” and “fault of person.”2 Heinrich believed that certain demographics were more likely and even inclined to disregard safe behavior and therefore cause an accident or injury. Dubbed the “Domino Theory,” Heinrich’s assumption is that most injuries result from a single cause or unsafe act. However, this is not the case, as even small or simple accidents have multiple causal factors.3
Though Heinrich’s methodology was undoubtedly flawed—he cherry-picked his data—the reaction to the study did spur the development of basic safety guidelines. Just as Upton Sinclair’s 1904 novel The Jungle caused a public outcry for better working conditions, Heinrich’s work is in part the foundation for today’s safety regulatory framework. But his results were also popular with managers, who used his work to blame safety lapses on workers and avoid having to implement expensive environmental controls or management changes. Indeed, victim blaming has been widely used in the United States for the past 50 years and is the original sin of behavior-based safety.4
The truly ironic point is not that this flawed perspective endures or that widely publicized declining incident rates and lost workdays data are unreliable. Instead, it is that worker advocacy for better personal protective equipment (PPE) and safeguards actually perpetuates the “blame” problem instead of incentivizing eliminating the hazards.
Process Model of Safety
Health and safety officers are now espousing a different model that seeks solutions that prevent hazards from emerging in the first place. This requires a more proactive, three-step process of identification of hazards; evaluation and prioritization; and selection and implementation of controls. Notice that control appears last, affording leaders a more informed view of risks before determining the best areas to control.
The manner in which controls are selected is the differentiating characteristic of the process model of safety. First published in 1955, the National Safety Center’s Accident Prevention Manual for Industrial Operations presented a number of control methods, ranked from most effective/highest priority down to lower, more easily defeated levels of control. The hierarchy consists of elimination or substitution; engineering controls; warnings, training, and procedures/administrative controls; and PPE. This construct has since been featured in U.S. and international standards for industrial safety and has shown some success in the chemical industry and in the realm of fall prevention.5
An ongoing informal study, U.S. Navy Maintenance Technician Falls conducted by REK Associates since 2016, is an example. Established naval aviation safety programs require sailors to report falls that result in at least a time-loss injury, but they do not account for smaller injuries that might be deemed embarrassing and can be “walked off.” Data covering fiscal years 2005 to 2014 show that only 29 of the 286 reportable falls were actually documented—barely 10 percent.6 Clearly there was a problem, one that the Navy Fall Protection Program was meant to correct. The program focuses on the “identification and elimination of fall hazards. . . [including] engineering and training,” and not just on the proper use and wear of PPE.7
The Fall Protection Program was better received and implemented at Navy shore installations than on board ships. Recent 2018 data shows that more than 25 percent of falls were reported, a significant improvement.8 While the reports are still largely anecdotal, they nonetheless show the validity of a process model of safety. The problem is that, often, when a hazard is identified, it already is ingrained culturally or systemically as a necessary part of a process, and therefore is difficult to eliminate without affecting the goal of the activity.
A safer workplace results from using a combination of controls for the environment and the worker.9 Eliminating a potential hazard on the drawing board, coupled with engineered controls, appropriate doctrine, and PPE, enable the best of both worlds. This approach is neither new nor particularly earth-shattering. But what is new is applying it through a different perspective—that of the relationship between management and worker.
A safety culture must be established through a mutual relationship, because workers are not going to respond when repeatedly hit over the head with doctrine and preaching. A younger force will simply assume the briefings do not apply and ignore them, while the older generation comfortable with that is how it has always been done will resist innovation. Without change, however, proponents of behavior-based safety will continue to happily blame the worker for safety lapses.
Conversely, the process model with the National Safety Council’s hierarchy of controls shows promise, but it, too, is an incomplete solution. Doctrinally correct and statistically affirmed, it has yet to gain traction because industry has been unwilling to accept and implement the tenet of removing a hazard before it can cause harm. It is usually too costly to do so. It also does not address the challenges of implementing real change in an established environment.
A better relationship between management and workers will be required to overcome this. Robin Wright, the manager of a Perth, Australia–based safety management company, concurs:
It is recognized that preventing accidents relating to plant and equipment failure (process safety) requires a different approach to personal safety. There is a clear need to keep the focus in an organization on both aspects of safety management.10
Relationship is the key ingredient to ensuring both aspects are brought to bear. But what does this look like from a practical standpoint?
Safety is a Choice
Heinrich was correct in claiming there must be some component of control with regard to safety. Safety cannot simply be enforced, but rather must be chosen. Subordinates will not do this unless they trust the supervisor and accept this common goal. This subject of a safety culture was added in then–Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson’s last installment of the Navy Leader Development Framework. A leader who genuinely cares and develops a relationship with each member sets the tone for a professional safety culture. This is where subordinates have the opportunity to choose and are willing to always make the safe choice.
1. Safe [Definition 2], Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com.
2. Herbert William Heinrich, Industrial Accident Prevention: A Scientific Approach, 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1941), 14.
3. George Swartz (ed.), Safety Culture and Effective Safety Management (Chicago, IL: National Safety Council, 2000), 233.
4. Swartz, Safety Culture, 234.
5. Masaki Nakagawa, “Case Studies in Process Safety,” presented at the AIChE CCPS Asia-Pacific Conference, February 2015, www.aiche.org/conferences/aiche-ccps-asia-pacific-conference/2015/events/case-studies-process-safety.
6. U.S. Navy Maintenance Technician Falls, REK Associates Inc., January 2019.
7. Department of Defense Instruction 6055.1, Navy Fall Protection Guide, 2015.
8. Navy MPHA Competent Persons for Fall Protection Course, REK Associates Inc., January 2019.
9. Jim Howe, “A Union Perspective on Behavior-Based Safety,” in Swartz, Safety Culture, 225–42.
10. Robin Wright, “Case Studies in Process Safety,” presented at the AIChE CCPS Asia-Pacific Conference, February 2015, www.aiche.org/conferences/aiche-ccps-asia-pacific-conference/2015/events/case-studies-process-safety.