The Heinrich pyramid may not be current EHS best practice.

The Heinrich pyramid - created by Herbert William Heinrich in 1931 - massively impacted the EHS industry. However, is it still relevant? Dave Collins of safetyrisk.net discusses in our first blog post of #IMM2018.

The Heinrich pyramid explained

Anyone working in the safety industry will be familiar with the Heinrich pyramid. Since its inception in 1931, the pyramid has infiltrated health and safety procedures.

A diagram of The Heinrich pyramid
A diagram of The Heinrich pyramid

The pyramid is based on Heinrich's book, Industrial Accident Prevention: A Scientific Approach. It explains that focusing on near misses and first aid cases (bottom of the pyramid) leads to a reduction of lost time injuries and deaths (top of the pyramid).

Read our ultimate guide to Root Cause Analysis models

Arguably, these conclusions are inaccurate and misleading. For example, the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. The incident occurred in 2010 and killed 11 people, on the same day BP celebrated seven years without a lost time injury.

The mindset fuelled by the pyramid opposes making sense of risk. Despite this, it continues to be used in workplace safety, and amplifies the ideology of zero harm and preventable injuries. 

Why use a contrary discourse?  Social Amplification of Risk Framework (SARF) has the answer. 

What is the Social Amplification of Risk Framework (SARF)?  

Risk perception is complex. It is subjective, depending on multiple processes. SARF uses research from sociology, psychology and anthropology.

Essentially, SARF is an overview of risk event communication: from the sender, then through intermediate stations, then finally to the receiver. Interacting with the hazard either amplifies or attenuates risk perception, in turn modifying our behavioral responses risk. 

By and large, risk assessment in the safety industry does not utilize the SARF model. In other words, it does not consider risk in its full social complexity.

The SARF vs the Heinrich pyramid 

The pyramid focuses on event probability and their consequences. Yet, biases govern risk perception. Most people understand risk, but many factors influence it. 

The Heinrich pyramid allows a discourse of blame, punishment and dehumanization to take shape when filtering risks. The trajectory created by “all injuries are preventable”, results in near misses and first aid injuries being mis-attributed as “safety is a choice you make”.  

However, the SARF looks at risk event communication. For example, a cut finger gets transmitted from the sender, with investigators looking the into the root cause of the cut finger, through intermediate stations. Finally, it is transmitted to the receiver and management react by adding rules and regulations.

Following this with individual psychological, social and cultural factors, we see risk perception amplified. In other words, it validates the ideology of zero harm and preventable incidents. 

Behavior Based Safety

The ripple effect results in  behavior based safety (BBS) to control and manage issues at the bottom of the pyramid. Management typically believe risk identification results in uniform behaviour.

But since risk is subjective, so are the reactions. Fundamentalist authority (BBS, absolutist, binary logic thinking) rules, controls and enforces, but does not develop ownership. It alienates itself from who it seeks to win over.   

Safety metrics and data

Further evidence of the pyramid’s disinformation is the error of safety metrics. Commonly, a company is considered safe if their safety metrics are at or below a certain level. Aside from planting the seeds of arrogance (another hidden layers of risk), a host of other issues are created, including injury under-reporting and employee objectification.

Additionally, resources helping employees make sense of risk are diverted. Instead, hours upon hours are spent tracking, collecting and analyzing injury data.

Reality is distorted when these metrics are mis-attributed as evidence of a safe work culture. Safety metrics have ballooned into a stream of bureaucracy and paperwork, evolving into an entire industry with the sole purpose of managing paperwork and bureaucracy.

Ironically, the pyramid encourages the blame of workers. By framing workplace incidents as a conscious behaviors - stupidity or laziness - mistakes as a weakness are sewn into the safety culture’s fabric. As a result, perfectionism and the absence of human error alienates employees and promotes fear. 

The good news

It is possible to deviate from the Heinrich pyramid. Firstly, it is essential to recognise language's impact on an organisation's safety culture.
Then, the Heinrich pyramid’s hidden message is brought to light, and replaced by a more humanising and learning environment. Finally, moving towards critical thinking and using skills such as self-reflection, independent research ability and determining relevance.

Not an easy task. But Heinrich’s pyramid  did not happen overnight either. 

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Dave is a USA based student at The Centre for Leadership and Learning in Risk online program.