I recently had a discussion with someone about occupational safety and how the Heinrich triangle is not a valid representation of safety occurrences relative to severity. The discussion was also based on the value Heinrich’s triangle brought to the profession over the course of 70 plus years. In addition to discussing the short comings of the triangle, we also conversed about the lack of a simple replacement tool that corrects the shortcoming of Mr. Heinrich’s triangle.
My position was that there really is not a tool that can be used to categorize injury or illnesses like that of the Heinrich triangle. For starters, it is intuitive to understand. There are more incidences on the bottom of the triangle (less severe), which naturally occur with more frequency, and less on top (more severe) e.g., death. The triangle numerically works out to be a 300-29-1 ratio.
In most instances, business leaders have experience around the triangle and they are at ease with the theory. It makes it much easier for a safety professional to able to present the triangle and discuss the issues versus discussing how the data was generated and what it means. This is especially important when it comes to the limited time a safety professional has in presenting to a leader and/or their team.
In hindsight, many fine safety leaders that I knew used the triangle to articulate their situation and they used it effectively. I saw incidence rates drop (and not only through case management) and I attribute some of it to the simplicity of focusing on areas that would allow for the greatest improvements and leadership buy-in. One could make the case that Heinrich’s theory is/was outdated. Heinrich’s focus was on the employee being the cause of the injury whereas Deming focused on the process. From a personal perspective, I agree much more with Deming than I do with Heinrich.
So what is used today to assist the safety professional in easily and accurately quantifying and qualifying safety incidences? I usually ask the same people that do not agree with the triangle (but they still use it for some or all of the points made above!) what is a better replacement and they have yet to show me. It is not that I am stuck on the triangle, but since I have matured in my career and have reflected and debated the specifics of the triangle, I have come to realize that the generalities of it still serve a meaningful purpose. Finally, it is a testimony to Mr. Heinrich’s intelligence that his theory is still discussed today!