The Heinrich pyramid may not be current EHS best practice.

The Heinrich pyramid - created by Herbert William Heinrich - truly impacted the EHS industry, but does it still stand today? Dave Collins of safetyrisk.net discusses its relevance in our first blog post of #IMM2018.

The Heinrich pyramid explained

Virtually everyone that works in the safety industry has seen and is familiar with the Heinrich pyramid. The pyramid, and its underlying ideology, has infiltrated the majority of employers’ health and safety programmes.

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

Based on a book written in 1931 by Herbert William Heinrich, the Heinrich pyramid infers that if you focus on near misses and first aid cases found at the bottom of the pyramid, it will lead to a reduction or elimination in lost time injuries and deaths, found at the top of the pyramid.

 

However, it’s argued that these inferences are inaccurate and misleading. One example (of many) is the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. The incident occurred in 2010 and killed 11 people, on the same day BP were celebrating seven years without a lost time injury.

The mindset fuelled by the Heinrich pyramid produces cultural by-products antithetical to making sense of risk. Despite this, it continues to be a disinformation tool for workplace safety - amplifying the ideology of zero harm and preventable injuries. 

How and why would an occupation like safety, that purports to reduce harm in the workplace, continue to uphold a semiotic artefact that creates a self-defeating discourse? A closer look at the Social Amplification of Risk Framework (SARF) can shed some light. 

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

The perception of risk is a complex phenomenon; it is subjective and can be distorted and manipulated by multiple processes. SARF uses research from fields such as sociology, psychology, anthropology, and communications theory. It gives an overview of how the communication of risk events are transmitted from the sender through intermediate stations and finally to a receiver. These processes interact with the hazard, and either amplifies or attenuates the perception of risk which then modifies our behavioral responses risk. 

By and large, the methodology of assessing risk in the safety industry does not utilize the SARF model, or consider risk in its full social context and complexity.

The SARF vs the Heinrich pyramid 

The methodology behind the pyramid focuses narrowly on the probability of events and the magnitude of specific consequences. Yet evidence clearly shows there are a series of heuristics and biases that govern risk perception. Most people have a comprehensive conception of risk, but many factors influence our risk perception. 

When you filter risk events through the Heinrich pyramid’s ideology, a discourse of blame, punishment and dehumanization takes shape. The trajectory created by absolutes like “all injuries are preventable”, mean cause for events at the bottom of the pyramid (near misses, first aid injuries) get misattributed as “safety is a choice you make”.  

Using the SARF, we see how the communication of a risk event (cut finger) gets transmitted from the sender (investigators looking the into the root cause of the cut finger) through intermediate stations (the ideology created by the belief in the pyramid) and finally to the receiver (management/employees react by adding rules and regulations).

When we follow this interaction with individual psychological, social and cultural factors, we see how the perceptions of risk are amplified. This helps the safety industry validate the ideology of “zero harm” or “all incidents are preventable”. 

Behavior Based Safety at the bottom of the pyramid 

The ripple effect results in the continued use of behavior based safety (BBS) to control and manage issues at the bottom of the pyramid. A typical issue with BBS is that management believes risk identification will result in a uniform behavior. 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 the very people it seeks to win over.   

Safety metrics and data

Further evidence towards pyramid’s disinformation is the fundamental attribution error regarding safety metrics. It is common for a company to be labelled safe if their safety metrics are at or below a certain level. Aside from planting the seeds of hubris in the organization (one of many hidden layers of risk), a host of other issues – injury underreporting and employee objectification – are created. 

Additionally, resources that can help employees make sense of risk are diverted. Instead, hours upon hours are spent tracking, collecting and analyzing injury data. More distortion of reality occurs as these metrics get misattributed as evidence of a safe work culture. The amplification of safety metrics has ballooned into an oppressive stream of bureaucracy and paperwork, in turn evolving into an entire industry whose sole purpose is to manage the paperwork and bureaucracy created by the Heinrich’s pyramid. 

Paradoxically, the pyramid’s disinformation attenuates the fallibility of humans. By framing workplace incidents as a conscious, discretionary behaviors (labels such as stupid, lazy or common-sense are typical) a discourse of fallibility being weakness is sewn into the safety culture’s fabric. As a result, an ideology of perfectionism (success from absence of human error) both alienates employees and promotes fear and uncertainty. 

The good news

There are ways to deviate from the disinformation of the Heinrich pyramid. To begin, it is essential to understand and recognize the impact of the language in an organization have on its culture. Building on that, the Heinrich pyramid’s hidden curriculum can be surfaced and a more humanizing, learning environment can evolve. Finally, moving away from the Heinrich pyramid means a move toward critical thinking and using skills such as self-reflection, independent research ability, determining relevance, identifying biases and Socratic questioning. 

Not an easy task, but then again, Heinrich’s pyramid influence 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.