Key Takeaways

Most organizations adopt a primary approach to designing and implementing their safety programs, typically either system or behavioral approaches.

No single safety management approach seems to be entirely successful for understanding the causes of unsafe acts in the workplace in order to develop effective corrective and preventive actions. There are both advantages and disadvantages to using either safety management system or behavioral approaches.

To better understand the causes of unsafe acts and perform appropriate corrective and preventive actions, a more comprehensive and integrated model based on system, behavioral and human performance approaches should be adopted. A recommended model is presented in this article.

The human performance approach can act as a bridge for using both system and behavioral approaches for understanding the cause of unsafe acts in an organization.

A review of the history of the safety field reveals an apparent tendency to change how safety is managed according to whatever approach is in vogue (e.g., regulatory-based safety, behavior-based safety, safety management systems, human performance). Each approach promises to be the cure-all for understanding the causes and elimination of unsafe acts leading to incidents. This also has led to many organizations adopting only a singular approach to managing their safety function and addressing unsafe acts and their impacts within a limited scope (Wachter & Yorio, 2014; 2018).

This strategy has not likely been successful over the years. Although incident rates have decreased over the past century, the rates of severe and fatal incidents have remained fairly constant in recent years (BLS, 2019). The majority of incidents are still being attributed to human error as was true at the start of industrialization (Reason, 1990). For example, in industries such as rail transport and airlines, human error is the top cause of incidents (Koen, 2015). Approximately 80% of airplane incidents are due to human error (e.g., pilots, air traffic controllers, mechanics), while 20% are due to equipment failures (Ranking, 2007). Human error has been implicated in 94% of motor vehicle crashes, due to violations and the presence of error precursors such as speeding, fatigue, and drunk or distracted driving (Brown, 2017).

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