Petersen – whose career in occupational safety and health spanned more than 50 years – penned award-winning articles and books such as "Safety Management: A Human Approach," helped educate countless safety professionals and developed one of the industry's original company safety culture measurement techniques.
"This is a major loss for the occupational safety, health and environmental community worldwide," American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) President Don Jones Sr. said. "His wealth of knowledge and expertise contributed to the ongoing professional development for thousands of our members. He touched on so many lives. This will leave a major void, but his teachings will continue."
An active ASSE member, Petersen in 1998 received ASSE's highest honor: the Society Fellow. Petersen also served as vice president of ASSE and as president of the National Safety Management Society.
A certified safety professional and registered professional engineer, Petersen is credited for founding the University of Arizona's graduate program in safety management.
As a consultant, Petersen's list of clients included Amoco, Borg Warner, Dow Chemical, DuPont, General Motors, IBM, Proctor & Gamble, Frito-Lay and Warner Lambert.
Petersen Developed Safety Culture Measurement Process
Born in Omaha, Neb., in 1931, Petersen served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Petersen's safety career began in earnest with WAUSAU Insurance in 1953, where for 8 years he tracked the health of foundry and tannery workers throughout Wisconsin. Petersen earned his Ph.D. in management at the University of Northern Colorado (Greeley), where his dissertation was titled "Human Error Reduction and Safety Management."
After his tenure at University of Arizona, Petersen taught at the University of Northern Colorado and the University of Minnesota (Duluth). It was in Duluth where Petersen teamed up with Charles Bailey, Ph.D., to identify categories that could accurately gauge the health of an organization's safety environment. With the U.S. rail industry as the research project's sponsor, Petersen and Bailey in 1988 completed a safety perception survey and associated methodology that still is considered the only statistically validated safety culture measurement process.
"Dan was a critical thinker and often was ahead of his time," ASSE Professional Development Council Vice President Richard Pollock said. "When he wrote back in the 1970s that 'accidents were due primarily to management and management system failures,' many people fell out of their chairs. They didn't realize what he was saying. But, today this is a common belief and is the basis for global management system regulations and standards."
'I Reference His Books Regularly'
Often referred to in trade publications as a "safety guru," Petersen's safety philosophy centered on leadership and accountability as a way to develop an organization's culture of safety. He expressed his philosophy in influential books, magazine articles and instructional videos.
Petersen's published titles include "Techniques of Safety Management" (1971); "Safety Supervision" (1976); "Safety Management: A Human Approach" (1978); "Analyzing Safety Performance" (1980); "Human Error Reduction and Safety Management" (1982); "Safety Objectives: What Gets Rewarded, Gets Done" (1996); "Managing Employee Stress" (1990); "Analyzing Safety System Effectiveness" (1996); and "Authentic Involvement" (2001).
"His most recent book, 'Measurement of Safety Performance,' is of particular value in that it provides an excellent discussion of the various metrics used in safety and helps the reader define those leading indicators of success for their organization," Pollock said. "I reference his books regularly. Dan was a friend and professional colleague. He will be missed by us all."
Petersen is a four-time recipient of ASSE's national Professional Paper Award for articles he published in ASSE's Professional Safety journal, including one titled "Leadership and Safety Excellence." According to ASSE, his articles on the use of perception surveys to assess safety management and organizational culture continue to be among the most requested articles in the journal's archive.
Petersen Drew Standing-Room-Only Crowds
Petersen drew standing-room-only crowds for his presentations at ASSE professional development events. During ASSE's 2003 Human Errors Symposium in Atlanta, Petersen led a session titled "It's Safety's Next Frontier," in which he noted that safety in the last 90 years "has gone through many frontiers, many fads and occasionally a true paradigm shift."
"Interest in behavioral safety has paled and some are discovering the importance of management and culture," Petersen asserted during the 2003 presentation. "But even in an environment with good management and a good culture, people are still being injured due to human error, their own or someone else's. We in safety need to be able to explain why human error happens and what it is. That knowledge will open up the next frontier in safety management."
Petersen is survived by his wife, Nadyne; son, Thom Petersen; daughters, Pat Bennett and Susan Olson, Ph.D.; and five grandchildren.