Job site safety and Heinrich’s Law

Among the most obvious inhibitors of profitability for construction companies is job site safety. Consider the following example suggested by the Electronic Library of Construction Safety and Health: A contractor with a 3% profit goal who suffers a $50,000 loss because of an accident must boost sales by more than $1.6 million to counteract the shortfall.

If only there were a crystal ball you could use to foresee a catastrophe and then take steps to prevent it. There isn’t. But one long-time safety concept, Heinrich’s Law, may offer you a glimpse into the future — or at least provide some food for thought.

The gathering clouds

H. W. Heinrich was Assistant Superintendent of the Engineering and Inspection Division of Travelers Insurance Company during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1931, he published Industrial Accident Prevention: A Scientific Approach. The book brought us Heinrich’s Law, which states that, for every 300 injury-free accidents, there are 29 minor-injury accidents and one major-injury accident.

To be clear, this 300:29:1 ratio is far from being set in stone. It’s based on research from decades ago for which no reviewable papers exist. Several books have been written challenging Heinrich’s Law, and workplace (and construction job site) safety has grown in leaps and bounds since 1931.

Yet the enduring lesson of Heinrich’s Law persists. That is, if your construction company experiences a rash of “minor” accidents, don’t assume the weather has cleared. Those incidents could be the gathering clouds of a much greater storm.

What you can do

Sometimes contractors actually grow overconfident after enduring a series of relatively unremarkable safety-related occurrences. One might say: “Yeah, we had a couple of scaffolds fall apart, but no one was hurt. We’re good.” Or: “There was a fender-bender, and a few of the guys were a little banged up. But no one had to be hospitalized.”

Workers escaping serious harm is a good thing. But, as Heinrich’s Law indicates, as the number of these incidents builds, you may not be managing job site safety so much as suffering a slow erosion of it.

So what can you do? For starters, document every safety-related incident with no exceptions. And don’t just document them — track them. Look for patterns and any sudden upswings in the number and severity of accidents. Over several years, you might be able to develop your own approximation of Heinrich’s Law. The railroad system in the United Kingdom, for instance, purportedly uses a 12:1.5:1 ratio.

Second, get every employee involved. Data is important, but it’s human beings who will make the difference. Establish a formal safety program that includes:

  • Ongoing training,
  • Prejob safety meetings,
  • Regular project updates, and
  • Clear procedures for preventing, reporting and responding to accidents.

Require every worker on staff, from project manager to laborer, to sign off on the program and follow the rules.

Out of harm’s way

Heinrich’s Law may not be perfect, but it should get you thinking about your recent history of job site accidents. A strong safety record can mean the difference between a profitable year and a losing one. Most important, safer job sites greatly improve your chances of keeping employees out of harm’s way.