Health and safety myths bend numbers

Some organisations practice petty health and safety myths or numbers games. If your employer does, be afraid.

A school in Sydney had banned children from doing cartwheels and handstands in the playground, to avoid injuries and other consequences. We have all heard similar stories around the world.

A school in the UK has a tandem rocking horse, but do not allow children near it in the name of safety. What if a child fell off?

My wife and I facilitated Leading Safety Indicators workshop for the International Council of Mining and Metals (ICMM) in London. While rummaging among antiques in Portobello Road, it started to rain and the crowd stepped onto the pavement, but store owners chased us off.

It was a ‘health and safety risk’ to stand on the stoop in the rain! Actually, they did not want us to block the store entrance signage.

Many unrelated things are done in the name of health and safety, adding to the myths and falsehoods it seems too accumulate.

Some BBS is health and safety myth

Much health and safety lore or legend, has its etiology in the flawed thinking around Behaviour Based Safety (BBS) and Accident Causation.

We have all heard the health and safety myth that ‘up to 98% of accidents are due to unsafe acts or conditions’. This magic number, dishonestly promoted by some consultants who know better, leads to a maze of confusion.

If we reduce unsafe acts, whatever these might be, then ‘accidents’ would stop, or so it seems in common sense.
The next step is even more concerning. It is about the last decade’s obsessive focus on the word ‘zero’. You may have heard of ZIP, ZAP, ZOP, and Zero Harm programs. Many consultants and employers promote the Zero mentality.

In my view it must be the objective, and systems /practices must be designed to minimise the likelihood of injury to anybody entering or participating in a workplace. But we must also acknowledge that despite our best efforts, accidents do happen.

We set out with the intention to not cause harm, so we have a zero harm vision, but this is different to measuring against a cognitive frame.

We tour on vacation with a zero harm vision, but some tourists do get killed, and many get injured, in numbers so predictable that the insurance industry is based on it.

No road environment in the world has achieved a zero sum outcome, despite the trillions that have been spent. In your heart and your head you know this. Yet for some reason we get pulled and dragged into this Zero Sum Game.

When an accident happens the response is almost rabid to find an “unsafe act” and actor to blame it on. Rarely are the likely underlying factors, and there are always several, ever located or managed.

It is far easier to count bodies, and find an “act” or two that can be pinned on an underling; the Underling Factor, instead of the Underlying Cause. It is easy to point at someone rather than management.

For underlying causes, look up to management

When a safety incident occurs the first reaction should to be look up not down. The response is always aggressive becuase management likes a picture, preferbaly not the real one.

For a start, there is the impact that an accident might have on metrics. In organisations that use reductionist metrics such as incident numbers, LTIFR, MTIFR, etc, we see ludicrous efforts to hide incidents and fabricate numbers downward towards Zero.

I was conducting a Safety Culture Review of a mine site in North Queensland, Australia. On entering a lunch room I came across half a dozen guys playing cards, the ones medically certified fit for light duty.

Standard practice was to put these people anywhere, so they are “at work” but not at risk, and contributing positively toward the famous zero!

I was attending a meeting of senior leaders of a large multinational in the USA. The Safety Director received a phone call and left. Given that this organisation had flown me halfway across the world to assist them with creative and effective safety initiatives, his presence was critical.

But he was doing an urgent function; a worker on another site had suffered a laceration and was on his way to the doctor. The director sped to the doctor to ensure that the worker was not booked off work.

It would not look good on the Monthly Zero Report (that’s what they actually called it). What is motivating the Safety Director, is nothing to do with the clinical care of employees. It was a numbers game, and workers knew that.

The triangle myth

Another myth that has become embedded in misunderstandings of safety is the “magic triangle” that suggests that for every given number of unsafe acts, there is a contribution toward a give number of injuries, which in turn contribute to a set number of fatalities.

The Heinrich or Bird Triangle is as unreal as a rabbit hatching from an egg in a hat. I had a call from a global president in manufacturing to tell me that his board had a presentation about the relationship between observations, unsafe acts, and poor safety performance.

He was questioned on why his division was not reporting safety data aligned to the numbers of the assumption. If the numbers did not align with the model, there was ‘a problem with the system’!

What an absolute lot of fluff. Top management over 50 000 employees wasted oxygen on statistical fabrications. An infusion of junk science tried to give credibility to Heinrich’s books, and to common sense, and is even praised for saving lives.

The correlation myth

There is scientific evidence that storks are involved in the delivery of babies, particularly in Germany. In the journal of Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology 2004, Vol18, pp 88-92, Thomas Hofera reports a correlation between the number of babies born at home, and the number of storks seen there.

You have to exclude babies born in hospitals, and as there are no storks there. Storks and babies declined between 1970 and 2000, and recovered between 1975 and 1990. The mathematical correlation was quite significant.

Before World War 2, Gustav Fischer published his stork observations in Copenhagen. The city had records of the annual number of storks nesting in the city, and the annual number of babies born.

If you question the assumption of a direct cause, you must dismiss some of the assumed causes and effects ascribed to the health and safety incident triangle, LTIFR, Zero, and other health and safety myths and numbers games.

Let’s get real.

• David G Broadbent is a safety psychologist and founder of TransformationalSafety.Com. This is an edited version of his circular.

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7 thoughts on “Health and safety myths bend numbers

  1. Sounds to me like safety has regressed from a science to a religion, let alone a HR discipline. It is no longer about the injuries to people. It is the injury to the company’s reputation that causes all these “myths”. We are no longer disputing the fact that a risk assessment has or hasn’t been done. We are now disputing the method to get to the final number – High or Low? Safety and Insurance nowadays walks the same path. I hear this daily, in fact, some of the biggest names in “Zero Harm” are among those who are more concerned about their liabilities than the fatalities. Is not enough to have a H&S Plan. You also need a Fatality Prevention Plan if the H&S plan does not work. Degrees and Diplomas are not good enough. You need a Unit standard to back up your competence.
    And if you listen to comments and questions being asked at training sessions with executives, you will understand why these “myths” are so welcome. They have no idea what safety is actually all about. As long as it sounds good, looks good on annual reports and feels good on the way home, its all okay. WE can break the law for now, while we get our ducks in a row, as long as the contractors are all fully compliant.
    Sorry your honour, I did not mean to shoot the intruder. I thought is was my girlfriend.
    Oh boy, do we get this wrong!
    Thank you David, for saying what others are too ashamed to admit.

  2. I think this is caused by the “Experts” in H&S, who has nothing more to do, so they “invent” stuff to keep them in their jobs. Your typical safety file has been changed since 2003 into a “Collection of Google Works” written and adapted by “author unknown”. For this whole thing, I blame the Construction Industry, who are unable to manage their time schedules properly. A project always takes x+y months. And only during x months it is a matter of safety first. Then when the y months start, it is “Breaking the law first”.
    Projects started last year, are only NOW being provided with H&S specs. Sites are stopped because of paperwork of contractors, while the client breaks the entire law book. Circumventing the law is becoming the latest hype among the Zero Harmers.
    My summation of all of this is “safety” is no longer needed in our modern world. We need safe people, not “safety”. There is no such thing as a good safety culture. Even a non-existing safety system tells me the type of safety culture.
    Everybody worries about stats. How many companies with Zero compliance to all this bum fluff, have accidents? What is the LTIFR of the “no safety” companies? Zero? Probably. I think there are at least 1 000 companies without anything in place, with NO accidents since they opened their doors. Why? Because they do not lose half their production time wasted on “Safety”. No rush, no risk! How many Government employees are injured annually? Not including falling out of a chair whilst sleeping on duty? No rush; no risk.

  3. Thanks for the sms Peter.
    I think you have it wrong. David is right. Employers “play” safety, like kindergarten kids play rape-rape in South African Schools, and OJ Pistorius plays “Cluedo”.
    I call it by its name. It is rubbish.
    There is this company, with “absolute rules” to maintain their impeccable fatality rate of 9 for this year. In their head office, is a huge water feature about 300mm deep. They recently decided it is time to clean the bottom of this water feature. Sending workers into this hazardous working environment, they applied their own rules. Gumboots, water proof clothing and and and, a safety harnass attached to a rope held by another person from the first floor, just in case they fall into the water. And to add, they donned a life jacket too, just in case they fall into the water and drown. So there they are, working, and I played off this “prevention of a drowning” in my mind. Person A would slip. Person B would continue to work, as Person A is being protected by his “buddy” holding the rope. But let’s assume Person A is 100 kg heavier than the buddy holding the rope, and then falls? Buddy A, clenching to the rope is pulled over the railing, falling 6 meters into a watery grave, slowly sinking away into the 300mm deep blue – he failed to wear his life jacket.
    And – yes they have all the requisites for a Zero Harm safety culture. They will not be harmed as they did everything the law required and then some million more. No harm to them there. Yet, the poor guy doing the job is probably regretting the day he signed up for this moon walk in the fish pond. Over the Top? Hell no!! Zero Harm.
    And that is why I still believe (as my religion) that H&S occifers are MORONS.

  4. Yes, maybe you are correct in your perspective/experience that the statistics pattern is not a one size fits all.
    I do not agree with the Totalitarian “Zero Harm” at all costs, but I do believe in Zero targeting.
    Example 1) At some stage your child will stick his/her hand on a hot surface (oven/stove/open fire)
    You do not set the bar for an acceptable 5 times before the age of 7, we set it at Zero, we educate the child that there is no purpose in getting burnt.
    Example 2) Your household uses cleaning chemicals, what level of exposure /poisoning is acceptable? Zero
    Example 3) From the stage of learning to toddle/walk your child will need to cross the road, what level is acceptable for you? Zero

    To me playing numbers game/safety in numbers/Russian roulette is all the same.
    If the above were true then you’d need to increase the population drastically to accommodate the number of acceptable injury’s/fatalities.
    You cannot live in a delusion of zero risk, but you cannot target failure.

    Quoting a clever person I know” You cannot control what you don’t know – Risk Assessment”
    You need to be honest, assess what your significant risks are and deal with them first, as you conquer/overcome those you move on to the less significant.
    The only way you can do this is to have a target – Zero.

    We live in an imperfect world where at some stage we all die, but we need to fight the good fight and do things systematically/reasonably that we may minimize/reduce injury&ill health.

    This is all that we may give an account of what we have done in this life.
    Safety is not a religion but a commission to spread the good news=)

  5. Big Like. “We need safe people, not [a thing named] ‘safety’.

    Is it perhaps because some champions of the “ZERO HARM” theory do not intend, imply or expect it to be taken literally, as a fat “ZERO” as some here will do or have done, and more as Vincent has stated; “I do not agree with the Totalitarian “Zero Harm” at all costs, but I do believe in Zero targeting.

    Does the “ZERO HARM” dream suggest rather that the practical application and implementation of safety and it’s management should aim for “ZERO HARM”.

    To target something, We have to aim, do we not? So we aim at the “STARS” to make people safe, and perhaps we’ll Hit the MOON safely, and not overshoot our target.

    Of course we will not always land on the moon. But we may orbit “ZERO HARM” in the hope of returning home safely,but this will of course not always be achievable.
    So Zero harm does not mean we will get it right or be perfect all the time but there is no reason we should not take aim at it have some direction and chance of hitting something rather than nothing or just hoping we will eventually hit something.

    ZERO HARM is nothing but a target at which to aim safe people and this is no guarantee that they will be safe.

    So now instead of moaning, crying and bitching pick a target, any target take aim perhaps you will hit something (Oscar did) if you miss the bulls eye “ZERO” reload and try targeting again.Practice makes perfect even though it may not be a ZERO.

    Then again I ask myself, if ZERO in safety is not achievable or acceptable to you, what is, 1 injury,1 fatality,1 limb, 1 eye,1 finger, What and if it is or was your finger, limb,daughter,son,wife, father, brother aunt, uncle, cousin that did not have the ZERO Harm target on his\her back and arrived home in a coffin or without a limb would you be happy to learn that the company targeted 2% instead of Zero and one of the 2% was some one dear to you.

    ZERO HARM is an impossible dream but that does not mean we should not dream about it.

    “Zero Harm” are among those who are more concerned about their liabilities than the fatalities. Until it is one of their own.

    This is when they will ask you why were we not aiming for the STARS at least we may have hit the MOON.

    1. Excellent write up, we all strive for the best whether we make it or not, ZERO HARM should be the target at all times and we should do all we possible can to move towards our target.

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