Safety Myths and Misconceptions

Safety Myths and Misconceptions

Another classic article in the series by the late George Robotham

*This paper draws heavily on the work of Brisbane OHS consultant Geoff McDonald.

Quotable Quote

“A health & safety problem can be described by statistics but cannot be understood by statistics. It can only be understood by knowing and feeling the pain, anguish, and depression and shattered hopes of the victim and of wives, husbands, parents, children, grandparents and friends, and the hope, struggle and triumph of recovery and rehabilitation in a world often unsympathetic, ignorant, unfriendly and unsupportive, only those with close experience of life altering personal damage have this understanding”


  1. Damage to people at work has a number of adverse outcomes:-
  • Financial loss to employer, worker and community
  • Pain and suffering
  • Dislocation of lives
  • Permanence of death
  1. Damage to people from work falls naturally into one of three Classes.
  • Class I damage permanently alters the person’s life and subdivides into
  • fatal

  • non fatal

  • Class II damage temporarily alters the person’s life

  • Class III damage temporarily inconveniences the person’s life (Geoff McDonald & Associates)

Australian Safety & Compensation Commission2009-Class 1 personal damage 2005-6

Class 1 Fatal-7 per day, 2603 per year

Class 1 Non-Fatal-175 per day, 64,000 per year

Estimated cost of injury & disease including pain & suffering and early death 2005-6 (G. McDonald & Associates)

Class 1 Fatal $5.8 Billion

Class 1 Non-Fatal $90.5 Billion

Class 2 -$3.7 Billion


One important factor that influences how OHS is managed is the attitudes and pre-conceptions of those leading the charge. This paper explores beliefs, philosophies, concepts and attitudes and suggests some common ideas may be incorrect or unhelpful, that is they may be myths and misconceptions.

People cause accidents

We would not suggest that people are not essential in personal damage occurrences (Accidents) but the people cause accidents myth and misconception is often used as an excuse for not carrying out positive action. What often happens is we blame the person and forget about making positive changes to the machine and the environment. There are few occasions when it is appropriate to blame the person for their past actions, this is only appropriate when the blame leads to change in the future.

The people cause accidents philosophy has been reinforced in a number of ways over the years.

Heinrich-Although this belief has been part of our culture for centuries, it received official sanction in the writings of Heinrich, widely held to be the father of the industrial safety movement in the 1930’s.

His domino theory whereby unsafe acts, unsafe conditions, errors and hazards combine to produce incidents has tended to focus on the person to blame and has been a serious impediment to meaningful progress.

Legal system-This reflects the belief that people cause accidents. The system is seen by many to be nothing more than a crime and punishment system, where people are held to blame and punished accordingly. No other factors than peoples actions are given consideration when judgements are made in damages claims arising from motor vehicle accidents.

Insurance industry-Closely tied in to the legal system, seeks to identify some person to blame and pursue through legal channels for any claim.

News media-Media scream driver error in motor vehicle incidents, they scream pilot error in aviation incidents without taking account of the other multitude of essential factors.

Published studies-Many published studies will have you believe 90% of accidents are caused by human error. The reality is all personal damage occurrences will have people essential factors and machine and environment essential factors.

The main aim of safety activities is to prevent accidents

Certainly safety activities aim to prevent personal damage occurrences. However we must take one step further by also seeking to minimise and control damage. A classic example being the wearing of seat belts and fitting R.O.P.S. to tractors.

Look after the pence and the pounds will look after themselves

There is a belief in safety that if you bring controls to bear on all minor injuries then the Lost Time Injuries will look after themselves. This belief has mis-directed effort with the result that inordinate effort is directed at minor incidents that have little potential for more serious damage. Certainly we should prevent minor incidents but remember to concentrate our efforts where we get the best results. The Pareto Effect says 20% of incidents will give 80% of damage. This 20% must be identified and concentrated upon. In Managing Major Hazards Professor Andrew Hopkins outlines how a focus on Lost Time Injuries led to insufficient emphasis on high risk events. Papers are emerging questioning the wisdom of Zero Harm approaches to safety.

It cannot happen to me

There is a need for each and everyone of us to subscribe to this theory, for the sake of our own psychological well-being and to be able to cope with situations outside our control. This belief is often no more than an excuse for taking no action. Often you will wonder why the silly bugger did what they did, sometimes it is because of this belief.

Punishing wrongdoers

I am not saying we should not punish people who do the wrong thing in safety. I am saying that the fact that we do punish wrongdoers will often lead to highly imaginative efforts to avoid punishment and thus make things harder. The history of the safety movement records numerous cases of punishing the wrongdoers not being effective. We should seriously consider the full range of options rather than making hasty decisions to punish the wrongdoers.

W.A.S.P. ethic

This work ethic had its origins in the great religious upheaval know at the Reformation. The ethics emphasis is just reward for effort, conversely people who are hurt in accidents are receiving their just reward for lack of effort. The W.A.S.P. may sidetrack our prevention efforts.

Displacement activities

A displacement activity is something we do, something we put a lot of energy into but when we examine it closely there is no valid reason for doing it. The industrial safety movement reeks of poorly considered displacement activities often marketed by smooth consultants.

Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate is a valid and reliable measure of safety performance

I have personal experience with a company that aggressively drove down L.T.I.F.R. to a fraction of its original rate in a space of about 2 years yet killed 11 people in one incident.

The Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate predominates discussions about safety performance. How can a company be proud of a decrease of L.T.I.F.R. from 60 to 10 if there have been 2 fatalities and 1 case of paraplegia amongst the lost time injuries? The L.T.I.F.R. trivialises serious personal damage and is a totally inappropriate measure of safety performance.(Refer to the paper on this topic under articles on

Managers understand training needs

Every task that needs to be done by people must be done

· Safely

· Effectively

· At the right cost

· At the right quality

· In the right quantity

With appropriate consideration for people, for the community and for the Environment (Competency-Based Learning)

Detailed task analysis must take place to recognise the safety competencies required to perform all tasks (including supervisory) where gaps exist between required competencies and current competencies appropriate training may be the most appropriate solution. After people attend learning exercises the supervisor should develop a plan, in association with the trainee to implement the lessons learnt. A specific program of learning needs analysis is required to identify learning needs, do not rely on gut feel.

Risk Assessment

Notwithstanding the popularity of risk assessment techniques there are some limitations to the techniques that need to be realised. I have always been of the view that what you do to control risk as a result of a risk assessment exercise is more important than the risk rating. Placing too much emphasis on comparison of risk ratings will lead to inappropriate priorities. Risk assessment exercises are often subjective. When it comes to developing controls I find Haddon’s 20 countermeasures more effective than the hierarchy of controls.

Safety Procedures are the answer

The commonest mistake the author has seen with safety management systems is the development of extensive safety procedures that the workers do not know about, care about or use. The procedures sit on the supervisor’s bookcase or a computer program and are rarely referred to. The job safety analysis technique must be used to develop safe working procedures and involvement of the workforce is crucial. If your safe working procedures are over 2 pages in length worry about whether they will ever be used. Use flow-charts, pictures and diagrams in your safe working procedures and base them on a very basic level of English. The K.I.S.S. principles applies.

Critical incidents or near-misses are well reported

Critical incidents (near misses) occur regularly in organisations but are not routinely reported for a number of quite valid reasons. Critical incidents must be surfaced through an organised process. Critical incident interviewers and observers must be trained and they should spend some time in the organisation identifying critical incidents. Exploring why critical incidents occur will provide significant insight to guide the safety management system (Refer to the paper “Practical Application of the Critical Incident Recall Process” by this author)

Analysing enterprise accident data is a good idea

Unless you are a very big organization only limited insight into future class 1 personal damage will be gleaned from analysis of enterprise experience. Taxonomies of industry experience can be a powerful tool.


It is suggested some common approaches to OHS may be myths and misconceptions. The situation is probably best summed up by an ex-manager of mine who says the biggest problem with safety is that managers and safety professionals often engage in acts of public masturbation.

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