If you set out to find Safety Myths and Misunderstandings, incidents and causes are a rich field. Quite a few from that area can be found in my book, and here is another one illustration that I came across earlier this week.

There was this survey, intended to test some hypotheses about the human factor in safety and collect data for a ‘scientific’ article about these hypotheses. Information was gathered through an online survey tool that questioned safety professionals about the most recently incidents they were involved in as investigators.

Participants were asked to what degree four factors (‘causes’) had contributed to the incident. Participants had to assign a score between 0 and 100% to each factor, with a total for the four factors of 100%.

……% Technical

……% System

……% Culture

……% Behaviour

At this point I stopped reading and decided not to participate and wondered if I should ask the person behind the survey (of whom I had a rather high opinion, and so I did engage in a discussion - results pending) to stop this nonsense because this is so wrong on so many levels. Just a few issues:

This only scratches the surface of my concerns. Online newspaper do opinion polls on this level, and the quality that comes out of this survey will probably not be any better than that. So please, don’t come and call it scientific research.

Before even the first word of the report is written, I suspect that the results are going to be an extremely arbitrary opinion poll at best. Most likely, however, they are going to be extremely questionable. It might have been better to take a generally “accepted” number with a more or less known bias (like Heinrich’s infamous 88%) than come with a shaky survey that will only lead to even more confusion - even if it would “find” the opposite of what Heinrich wrote many decades ago.

It is important to look into the role of human factors in safety and incidents. But, please let’s do it properly and not by means of some make-believe-research. The First Law of Quality Assurance does apply for full: Shit in = Shit out. Things like this will do harm to safety, firstly because of the confusion it may create, secondly because it looks like safety people can’t get basic science right.

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Having said that… Of course, there is also a different possibility. The mentioned survey is not about incident investigation at all, but about the biases and gullibility of safety professionals… I hope the latter (and still then some of my concerns apply), but fear the other alternative.

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If this has tickled your interest in Safety Myths and Misconceptions, then make sure to check out the book Safety Myth 101. In the book, you can find 123 (and then some) Safety Myths, including explorations of their causes and suggestions for an alternative, better approach.

Among others the following Myths are relevant to the discussion above: #20 (understanding research), #83 (behaviour and human error), #91 (investigation and stop rules) and very much #100 (counting causes). Enjoy!


Also published on Linkedin as a follow-up to the post Safety Science? If Only!