Reducing Minor Injuries Does Not Translate to Reduction in Serious Injuries and Fatalities

Aug. 15, 2011
Just hours before the catastrophic April 20, 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion, employees and BP officials celebrated the rig’s safety record. How could this happen? According to a new white paper from Behavioral Science Technology Inc. (BST), reducing the occurrence of minor injuries and illnesses in the workplace does not necessarily translate to a reduction in the potential for serious injuries or fatalities.

The white paper, based on a study conducted by BST and Mercer ORC Networks, points out that while the overall occupational recordable injury rate has declined in recent years, serious injuries and fatalities have not declined at the same rate. In fact, they have held steady or even have increased.

“Clearly this pattern raises serious questions and implications for safety leaders and stakeholders at all organizational levels, from the first level of supervision to the most senior executive and board member, to the labor leader and government regulator,” the white paper states.

According to BST, reducing non-serious injuries does not equal a reduction in serious or fatal injuries for two reasons: First, the causes and variables of the less-serious injuries are not always the same as the causes and variables associated with the fatal or serious injuries. Second, most non-serious injuries present a low potential for fatalities or serious injuries.

Furthermore, OSHA’s classification and recordkeeping system does not make a distinction between injuries that have the potential for being serious and those that do not. “As a result, organizations that rely exclusively on, and are in total compliance with, OSHA and industry recordkeeping standards, may have experienced a high number of injuries with the potential to be far more serious or even fatal and not be cognizant of this fact,” the paper explains. “Unaddressed, these types of injuries can become eventual fatalities.”

Rethinking Heinrich’s Safety Triangle

This research calls into question some aspects of Heinrich’s Safety Triangle, a formerly accepted safety paradigm. Heinrich’s Safety Triangle assumes that as injuries increase in severity, their numbers decease in frequency; all injuries of low severity have the same potential for serious injury; injuries of different severities have the same underlying causes; and one injury reduction strategy can affect all types of injuries equally.

While this model may result in positive safety gains, the white paper states, it also may encourage companies to place “disproportionate emphasis on less serious injuries to the detriment of more serious ones.”

“The recent pattern of declining rates for less serious injuries and level or increasing serious and fatal injury rates directly refutes the Triangle’s claim that reductions in less serious injuries will result in proportionate reductions in more serious injuries,” the paper asserts. “This is important because many global organizations rely on this assumption to design safety programs and processes.”

BST therefore created a new paradigm that makes the following assumptions:

  • All non-serious injuries do not carry the same potential for serious injuries or fatalities.
  • Injuries with different severities have different underlying causes.
  • Reducing serious injuries requires a different strategy than reducing less serious injuries.

“We believe these findings and the implementation requirements they inform will lead to new and improved prevention methodologies for serious injuries and fatalities,” said BST Chairman Tom Krause.

The paper adds that the study’s findings “point to flaws in the way many organizations think about and subsequently address [serious injuries and fatalities]. While many organizations are aware that some non-serious, non-fatal injuries have high potential for far greater harm, few have a sufficient understanding of where to look for these types of injuries and the root cause analysis that is required to illuminate them. Intervention and understanding is needed to change the course.”

ExxonMobil, PotashCorp, Shell, BHP Billiton, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Maersk sponsored the study and contributed data in an effort to cultivate a new prevention model for serious injuries and fatalities.

To download the white paper as a PDF, visit

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