Risk Analysis

Examining Factors that Influence the Existence of Heinrich's Safety Triangle Using Site‐Specific H&S Data from More than 25,000 Establishments

Journal Article


In the 1930s, Heinrich established one of the most prominent and enduring accident prevention theories when he concluded that high severity occupational safety and health (OSH) incidents are preceded by numerous lower severity incidents and near misses. Seventy‐five years of theory expansion/interpretation includes two fundamental tenets: (1) the ratio of lower to higher severity incidents exists in the form of a “safety‐triangle” and (2) similar causes underlie both high and low severity events. Although used extensively to inform public policy and establishment‐level health and safety priorities, recent research challenges the validity of the two tenets. This study explored the validity of the first tenet, the existence of the safety triangle. The advantage of the current study is the use of a detailed, establishment‐specific data set that evaluated over 25,000 establishments over a 13‐year time period, allowing three specific questions to be explored: (1) Are an increased number of lower severity incidents at an establishment significantly associated with the probability of a fatal event over time? (2) At the establishment level, do the effects of OSH incidents on the probability of a fatality over time decrease as the degree of severity decreases—thereby taking the form of a triangle? and (3) Do distinct methods for delineating incidents by severity affect the existence of the safety triangle form? The answer to all three questions was yes with the triangle form being dependent upon how severity was delineated. The implications of these findings in regard to Heinrich's theory and OSH policy and management are discussed.

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