Editor's Chronicle

Volume 1, Issue 2

Political correctness and safety science

In 1919 Greenwood and Woods published an article called "The incidence of industrial accidents upon individuals with special reference to multiple accidents" in Britain. This was the first academic attempt to describe what has always been known about the distribution of accidents; most have none, some have one and a few have several.

Greenwood and Woods mark the start of the modern theory of accident-proneness. Before them sooth-sayers and fortune-tellers had peddled individual forecasts about luck and misfortune for many hundreds of years. But after Greenwood and Woods, a small segment of international safety research became devoted to describing and seeking to prove that some people are more likely to meet with accidents than others.

The proponents of accident-proneness have had to wrestle with enormous scientific and methodological difficulties to prove their point. However, their biggest problem was never science.

To scientifically prove the existence of a certain stable individual trait which attracts misfortune would transcend science. It would be the ultimate proof that it is all our own fault; it would, in fact, represent the scientific proof of the doctrin of original sin. The theory of accident-proneness exemplifies the basic ontological dilemma: What is the nature of our knowledge? Can exposure, individual differences, outcomes of certain processes, and all conceivable permutations of the above, be controlled to such an extent that an X-factor of accident-proneness could be extracted? This would be social alchemy!

Most proponents of accident-proneness have conducted rather sloppy meta-science based on aggregate statistics, with disregard for detail and lack of precise definitions of incidents, accidents and injuries. Thus, changes in exposure, hazard-levels, severity criteria for reporting, changes in organisational routines, or technological developments critical to injury risk might all have happened without the accident-proneness researcher noticing it.

Nevertheless, the accident-proneness theory has had a certain following among some industrial safety professionals. The theory has served to cover shortcomings in plant safety, lack of interest in the well-being of workers, and minimal resources for good and safe environment and working conditions. The accident-proneness theory has supplied one side in the industrial relations dispute with some sort of, albeit rather tattered, scientific alibi for blaming industrial accidents on injured workers.

The theory of accident-proneness is both scientifically flawed and politically incorrect.


Among the Australian safety fraternity, schooled in hygiene and hazard management, there is a motto, which they have seen nailed to lecterns, read from overheads and all industriously copied in their first weeks of OHS training: "Safe Place - Not Safe Person!"

To counteract a conservative victim-blaming industrial culture, mainstream safety training has been consciously pushing perspectives where design, engineering, technical solutions, and elimination techniques have been central.

Instead of defining the safety officer as the guy who buys the ear-muffs and the hard-hats, modern safety training is aimed at lifting the role of the safety professional to an analytical and problem-solving level. This progressive role of tertiary safety training is not without problems, since there is still a substantial industrial demand for the ear-muffs and hard-hat guys.

Of course, tertiary institutions can't just provide training, they are also expected to carry out research and development; if they don't they will stagnate and fall by the wayside.

But no safety science - in fact, no science at all - can be based on slogans or recipes. It is not enough to have the correct political view, to occupy the moral high ground or to know your hierarchy of controls from the safety training course. In order to undertake research, you need the accumulated scientific knowledge provided by the important earlier colleagues of your scientific tradition; you need to stand carefully on their shoulders in order to gain overview and perspective, to see clearly and to draw reasonable conclusions.

If you try to make "Safe Place - Not Safe Person" a philosophical platform for safety science you might be reaching for the highest order of political correctness, but you are really trying to peddle something just as scientifically one-legged as the theory of accident-proneness.

To brand any investigation into the behavioral or social aspects of human safety a perpetuation of "the myth of the careless worker" - will serve to distance safety science from relevance and respect in the wider society.

In a world where aviation and road traffic have proven the value of systems safety and demonstrated it to drastically increase reliability and reduce breakdowns, accidents and injuries, few would suggest that pilot training or driving schools are insignificant, few would insist that you can improve structural and environmental safety but that you should never touch any behavioral or individual aspects of the system!

Let's put the theory of accident-proneness away in the museum of cultural history, together with Ferdinand Zeppelin's airship and Trofim Lysenko's principles of agricultural genetics.

Let's keep "Safe Place - Not Safe Person" as a teaching motto and shorthand for sensible control principles in occupational hygiene. But let's not stifle the development of safety science with cookery-book simplicities or the tunnel-vision of political correctness.

Tore J Larsson