In Brief

  • The beliefs that "unsafe behavior" is a legitimate, objectively identifiable category of an incident cause and that most incidents are caused by unsafe behavior are misleading and should be abandoned.

  • Behavior and conditions have a reciprocally influential relationship and cannot be analyzed separately without significant misunderstanding.

  • The same underlying cognitive and behavioral mechanisms that lead to so-called unsafe behaviors also lead to success and, therefore, cannot be eliminated without doing significant harm to the organization.

  • This article discusses alternative methods for analyzing, understanding and influencing human performance based on understanding everyday, successful work processes.

A persistent belief held by some OSH professionals is that the primary cause of incidents is unsafe behavior, typically on the part of workers. News reports of incidents confirm this belief, where the media often identifies human error on the part of the frontline worker as the culprit. As a result, many tools have been developed to address unsafe behavior, such as an intense focus on training, behavior-based safety solutions and even initiatives designed to foster safety culture.

Rarely, however, does anyone question the fundamental belief that unsafe behavior causes incidents. This is troubling, given the power that these expectations have in influence cognition. Beliefs and assumptions about causal relationships have profound effects on what people see (and do not see) as the problems within their organizations and, perhaps most importantly, the range of potential solutions perceived to be available to address those problems (Weick, 1995).

This article argues that the belief in unsafe behavior as an objectively identifiable category for analysis and intervention creates a blind spot in the understanding of human and organizational performance, and may contribute to plateauing incident rates, particularly serious injuries and fatalities, seen throughout many industries (Manuele, 2013). Alternative concepts for understanding human performance are presented, based on the latest social and safety science research, which may provide the safety profession with more sustainable alternatives to achieving desired safety performance.

The Current Understanding of Unsafe Behavior

Tracing the belief that unsafe behavior is the primary cause of occupational incidents to any single event or set of research is likely impossible. However, early efforts to understand occupational safety often revolved around the need to control human behavior, suggesting that this belief has deep roots in Western culture (Dekker, 2014). One of the most important early indications of this belief is the work of Heinrich (1931), who reviewed incident reports and identified that in 88% of cases, the proximate cause was an "unsafe act," in 10%, the proximate cause was "unsafe conditions" and in 2% of cases the cause was an "act of God."

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