Nonsense Curves and Pyramids

Nonsense Curves and Pyramids

imageSafety likes nothing more than curves and pyramids, nothing so exciting as parading out the Bradley Curve or Heinrich’s Pyramid to get the troops excited about failure and loss.

The Bradley Curve was created by DuPont in 1995 to try and benchmark notions of culture and performance in relationship to safety. Like all curves, it is a geometric attempt to plot an organisations journey in safety. The Bradley Curve assumes that high injury rates are due to people not taking responsibility. It is a simplistic understanding of causation and totally ignores many social psychological causes for mistakes.  The Bradley Curve also demonizes natural instincts as if intuition, heuristics and unconscious choice is wrong. Natural instincts are associated with high accident and injury rates and, obviously injury rates are the measure of culture? The curve projects on to humans a behaviourist and individualistic anthropology that doesn’t match reality. The whole measure of determining a safe culture is based on an increase or decrease in injury rates.

The Bradley Curve is also premised on the ideology of zero. As one cruises down the curve in binary bliss, the absence of injury demonstrates ownership and responsibility. In the Bradley Curve safety is manufactured as a mechanistic process, luck is evil and the very denial of zero is determined as an attitude that incidents will happen. In most presentations of the Bradley Curve it is also assumed that the presentation of the curve will motivate people to care about safety. Through a process of observing curves and pyramids, somehow people will be motivated to create a safety culture.

imageIf one looks up the Bradley Curve in Google images one can see the influence this curve has had on the way safety interprets culture and performance. The assumption of connection between injury rates and attitudes is assumed not demonstrated. Of course, if one gets to zero one is deemed ‘world class’, a remarkable achievement that can be just as easily achieved through hiding data and under reporting. What is even more remarkable is the lack of definition of harm and what qualifies as injury. I would have thought one was more world class for admitting that mental health was a form of workplace harm than denying it.

One of the things that is convenient about curves and pyramids is that they are neat and tidy, giving a sense of order and control. What Taleb (2010 The Bed of Procrustes. p. x) calls ‘squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas, reductive categories, specific vocabularies and prepackaged narratives’. Rather than filling safety training with tidy formulas and pyramids of convenience we should be much more in tune with nature of randomness, resilience and risk. Current texts in WHS proudly parade pyramids, swiss cheese and curves as a source of intelligence about incident investigation, causation and understanding safety. I think Taleb is right in associating the commoditization of safety ideas with Procrustes, chopping off and stretching body parts as seen to ‘backward fit’ the mythology. Even to challenge the curve or pyramid evokes all kinds of defense from those with sunk cost in the game. Even their own statistics don’t match the curve or pyramid. Like finding meaning in the entrails of a goat, the curves and pyramids are defended like sacred objects in the religion of safety fundamentalism. My god, they are even sacralised with predictive value.

The pyramid is a much older creation than the curve but is nonetheless as fixed. Despite all the evidence to show Heinrich’s pyramid as the fictional manufacture of an insurance salesman in 1931, safety defends this myth more than a fundamentalist defends the Bible. There is no ratio to risk, this is why risk is about uncertainty. There is no mathematical construct for randomness, the ‘rain falls on the just and unjust’ the same as the dance of death visits without predictability. This is not to endorse fatalism but rather to say that the manufacture of control, the language of absolutes and the commoditization of risk offers no maturity for people in safety.

What I find most troubling about the fixation with curves, cheese and pyramids is the bizarre notion that these in some way inspire safety? Yet, so little is discussed in the safety world about inspiration, motivation and imagination. So whilst safety accepts the imagination of Bradley and Heinrich it can’t imagine that these are just dated constructs. It can’t imagine a safety without such misguided props and their misdirected focus. It can’t imagine what safety might look like without these superstitious trinkets, to ward off the evil of unpredictability and uncertainty.

There is a way ahead without these, a way that values people more than data, that values engagement more than counting and learning more than risk aversion. The way ahead involves letting myths go and un-learning constructs that commoditize. If you want to find out more about a better way to do risk and safety then check out the post graduate program at ACU or email at admin@humandymensions  for more information.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

5 Replies to “Nonsense Curves and Pyramids”

  1. Being in the mining sector for 8 years, previously owning small enterprises i have come to the understanding for all to achieve a better safety culture and increase in productivity and profitability all have to change in the way we approach our work life , caring for our colleagues creating a culture that has respect for one life a happy workforce is more productive and achieves results in all aspects

    1. Yes – that methodology certainly works when we are with family or friends – people we truly care about! No silly curves and pyramids required there……

  2. In the chemical industry its all about bow ties, LOPA studies etc. Its just a way to mask poor process controls & ‘appear’ to be doing something about it. Yes risk assessment is good, but only if conducted by a highly qualified & technically competent group of professionals. Good design, process controls, equipment & procedures will lead to less accidents, but many risk assessments I’ve seen merely justify the reason for making no improvements (cost cutting).

  3. Hats off to you, fella! I am a safety professional with 25 years standing with a degree in cognitive ergonomics. Very early in my career I became acquainted with the DuPont ‘way’ of doing things and have found it to be fatuous bullshit. End of…

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