One of the most amusing aspects of the Heinrich myth (https://safetyrisk.net/?s=Heinrich) is the sub-title of his book: A Scientific Approach. Of course, such is not the case. This is typical of Safety that most often seems to name what it is, by what it is not.
The first place to start in reading Heinrich is to place it in historical context. In 1931 the USA was in the middle of the Great Depression following the ‘Roaring Twenties’ (https://www.monroe.k12.ky.us/userfiles/993/Classes/1603/Ch.31.pdf). This was a period of enormous social upheaval, disorientation and seeking certainty (Grant, 2012, A Concise History of the United States of America).
Of course, all reading comes from a hermeneutical position (theory of interpretation) just as all reading of History carries its bias Historiographically (see Carr, 2018, What is History?).
Neither History nor the reading of History is neutral or objective and this is particularly relevant when reading a text from 1931. An understanding of hermeneutics is also essential in reading a text like Heinrich (see further Ricoeur 2007, The Conflict of Interpretations, Essays in Hermeneutics). Similarly, a text like Heinrich requires reading Linguistically, Mythically and Semiotically as the use of semiotics throughout the text is foundational to Heinrich’s argument. The text has little to do with Science.
I have certainly declared my bias, ethos, philosophy and historiography in many places (https://www.humandymensions.com/shop/) and such is essential to remain true to any ethical reading of a text more so, a text like Heinrich. Openness and transparency in bias is essential for ethical critique. I come to the work of Heinrich through the lens of a History of Mentalities (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_mentalities) and the Social Psychology of Risk (https://safetyrisk.net/what-is-spor/).
So, we come to the text of Heinrich and the first Chapter ‘Principles of Accident Prevention’ declares no principles of accident prevention. Indeed, this claim of ‘thorough exhaustive and authentic research’ (p.2), is pure myth. How do we know this? Because the next chapter ‘Basic Philosophy of Accident Prevention’ neither contains anything philosophical and is founded on semiotic assertions based on domino theory, triangles, models and semiotics.
So, before any evidence is provided (and there is none) Heinrich presents the ‘Five Factors in the Accident Sequence’ as the foundation of his so called ‘philosophy’ (Pp. 12ff). Such is the creation of pure mythology: find a semiotic of convenience and anchor a myth to it. Of course, Heinrich never confesses to the myth of linearity that is embedded in his assumptions of causality.
Such a model offers the simplistic minded with a seductive model of causality that doesn’t exist and for which Heinrich provides no evidence.
The acceptance by Heinrich of the Domino theory/model (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domino_theory) is unquestioned and serves as an anchor for what follows. It is a model of convenience and formula that is nothing more than pure myth. Such mythology also sets a foundation for other myths in causality in safety that come later, as proposed by the likes of James Reason (https://safetyrisk.net/no-good-reason-to-follow-reason/).
Both Heinrich and Reason provide models of certainty and control that don’t exist. Neither life, being nor events unfold in such a way indeed, such constructs are not just misleading but disable effective research, investigation, critical thinking and enquiry.
Next, based on this semiotic model, Heinrich introduces a semiotic table (p.19) invoking a binary approach to understanding causality, that is also pure myth.
This section includes assertions (with no evidence) that 2% of accidents are ‘unpreventable’, 50% are ‘practically preventable’ and 98% are ‘preventable’. None of this is based on any scientific evidence, research or theoretical basis. Then by page 27 there is the infamous triangle of injury rates that also includes no evidence, research or establishment in substance.
All of this Heinrich’s speculation, assertion and concocted goop.
Apparently, all of this is based on ‘self-evident truths’ (p.12).
More mythology and more non-science.
At no point does Heinrich discuss the assumptions of his epistemology nor the bias of any of his unfounded statements. And so, the real philosophy of moral naturalism (Kantian deontology) is hidden in Heinrich’s text and are thrown at the reader who needs to accept Heinrich’s assertions and mythology as true.
Heinrich is not a scientist and this work is not science. Just as many in safety who provide comment on culture are neither anthropologists nor cultural theorists.
Domino theory is a sucker semiotic for engineers. It provides certainty where there is none and linearity to reshape chaos as order. It then imposes order and linearity on events and thereby develops investigations of incidents established on myth. No wonder safety doesn’t learn from accidents.
Similarly, Heinrich’s triangle establishes a hierarchy where there is none but this also suits the mechanistic worldview of the engineer who wishes and hopes that incidents and accidents can be controlled according to formula and myth.
Of course, the sub title using the word ‘science’ is a con job. There is nothing of science in the book.
There is no evidential connection to any of the nasty projections of blame attributed to workers anywhere in the book. For example. Heinrich refers to the ‘mental condition’ of the employee (p. 8) with no expertise in psychology. Heinrich refers to decisions ‘without conscious selection’ (p. 9) with no expertise in human consciousness. He refers to ‘social environment’ and ‘family record’ with no expertise in sociology. All of which help Heinrich project his claim of ‘reckless tendencies’ of workers as ‘inherited’. And yet Heinrich remains in many safety texts and curricula as if there is some semblance of truth in myth.
Heinrich establishes his mythology based on ‘twelve thousand cases were taken at random from closed-claim-file insurance records’ (p.20).
This enables Heinrich to declare that humans hold a ‘complete disregard’ of instructions (p.21) and ‘willful disregard of instructions’ (p.22) that he names as ‘man failure’.
Heinrich is quick to declare statements about ‘scatter-brained youth’ (p.23) and ‘human ‘recklessness’ (p.25) as ‘abusive’. He then lists such dispositions as ‘willful disregard, recklessness, violent temper and lack of knowledge’ as the cause of ‘unsafe acts’. In concert with his assertion of ‘self-evident truths’ he also occasions refers to the myth of ‘common sense’. Such is the language that Heinrich uses in his so called ‘scientific approach’.
Heinrich then seeks to absolve himself of his speculative mythology by later declaring that he has made:
‘no attempt has been made to express the principles of either analytic or introspective psychology. Nor are the preceding statements and suggestions based on professional knowledge of industrial psychology or psychiatry’. (p.98)
Of course, he has made many psychiatric and psychological assertions throughout the text. This is somewhat like Peterson or Dekker declaring they are not theologians and then writing theology. I know, let’s seek out surgery from a plumber or knowledge on culture from a chemical engineer.
As the text flows Heinrich often refers back to his semiotic of dominoes as if his argument has been proven by the model (eg. p.103). This is NOT science. This is how one creates a myth (http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-94222016000400011) and makes something mythically true (https://www.jstor.org/stable/30059470) but not as Heinrich claims ‘factually true’.
Heinrich often refers to ‘scientific principles’ (p.130) which of course are never discussed not produced in the text. Yet, Heinrich is so quick to point out that accidents occur because of ‘improper attitude’ (p. 110). Well done Heinrich, wonderful psychoanalysis.
If you wish to see some of the text of Heinrich you can see here: https://safetyrisk.net/deconstructing-the-myth-of-heinrich/ or, email me and I can send you a full copy of the text.
The foundation of science is hypothesis, enquiry, observation, experimentation, evidence and testing theories against the evidence obtained. There is none of this is Heinrich.
Indeed, Heinrich is more a secret semiotician, religious soothsayer and poeticist than either a scientist or historian.
Heinrich is an insurance salesman selling security and certainty in a time of turmoil. Heinrich offers mythology that risks can be controlled, that events are linear and that accidents are preventable.
Indeed, this is the purpose of myth (https://oglethorpe.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/what-is-mythology.pdf). This is why humans have constructed myths throughout History. This is why the nonsense of heroes in safety is such an easy sell (https://www.aihs.org.au/events/hero-code-leader-unlocking-safety-leadership-potential-%E2%80%93-4-week-program). This is why a ‘hero code playbook’ is easy money for an industry that would rather believe myths than confront risk as a ‘wicked problem’. (https://safetyrisk.net/risk-and-safety-as-a-wicked-problem/).
This is why Safety would rather establish its beliefs on the myths of Heinrich than the realities of science.