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Inversion – The Perspective Based Safety Culture

October 18, 2017

By Brian O. Owens, Risk Control Consultant, Lovitt & Touché

Many of us who have been exposed to the formality of occupational safety and health in our careers have become familiar with the traditional Safety Pyramid. The premise, put forth by a Travelers Insurance safety engineer named H.W. Heinrich back in the 30’s, surmises that so many at risk behaviors lead to an increased chance of near misses, smaller injuries, larger injuries, and eventually a fatality.  The theory behind the use of the pyramid (Sometimes called Triangle) suggested that by focusing on and controlling the risky behaviors of employees, you would cause a ripple in the make up of the pyramid systematically eliminating the fatality from happening.  While there is some credibility to his ideas, as the concept has survived to this day, there are many who have taken issue with certain pieces of the ideology. I am no exception.

First of all, the way I see it, a singular exhibition of risky behavior can instantly cause a fatality, not just a wide smattering of them that would only then lead to an increased chance of moving a position or two up the pyramid. What’s more, the pyramid is constructed entirely of lagging indicators, everything being built on one reactionary event after another.  In other words, it is suggested we have to wait for an employee to have an at risk behavior (Which we know can kill them) before we can do anything about it.  Finally, this is all built on the idea that you have to control human behavior in order to achieve success.  As I’ve stated so prominently in the past, you simply cannot control human behavior.

So my question is – how is that good enough? I for one didn’t believe that it was, which is why I went in the opposite direction, literally.  Allow me to introduce you to the concept of Inversion.  Inversion, an ideological concept of my design, taking its name from the inverted version of the safety pyramid, quite simply suggests that there are just as many proactive leading efforts that will cascade towards zero incidents as the traditional version claims there are reactive steps heading towards a fatality.

Beginning with establishing a Culture based on excellence and quality, an organization would redefine where its “outrage meter” is calibrated to go off.  For example, instead of when there is an injury or when property is damaged as might have historically been the case, outrage would now be initiated when the housekeeping was subpar.

After establishing, clearly communicating, and embracing the newly defined cultural expectations, the company would always insist on the use of the Hierarchy of Controls.  This step would see that the best control is pursued and utilized every single time, with every single task, instead of simply accepting a less effective control because it is easier and more cost effective to administer.  Compare this to a speed limit sign being the sole control used to ensure abidance with the law, as opposed to the installation of an engine governor that restricts speeds above a certain limit.  (Administrative vs. Engineering controls)

Always using the best control will reduce the risks down to where they are as low as reasonably possible, or A.L.A.R.P.  The principle of A.L.A.R.P. was developed in Europe in the 70’s and suggests that there is really no such thing as zero risk in the work place.  It is instead represented on a sliding scale of acceptability.  Let’s again compare this to driving.  With all of the combined controls in place to ensure your commute is a safe one, are the risks really eliminated?  Of course the answer is no, as all of the hazards are still there laying in wait to ruin your day.  The use of the proper controls however reduced the risk down as low as possible so you could perform the task safely.  This practice should be no different with each and every task on the job site, as the methodology is the same.

This of course ushers us towards the destination that we all seek to find in the first place – Zero incidents.  It is my belief that staying on the under side, the proactive side of the line that divides the traditional pyramid from the inverted version is a lot like managing a bank account;  Why would you sit up and take notice of your funds when you have gone into overdraft, headed towards bankruptcy?  Doesn’t it make more sense to manage your funds while you have them, and the healthier your account is, the better?

I suppose the best way to explain Inversion as a process for safety excellence is to simply let it define itself:

“A situation in which something is changed so that it is the opposite of what it was before.”

Brian Owens, Risk Control Consultant with Lovitt & Touché, has over ten years of experience as a health & safety professional in several industries including mining, construction, pipeline, oil & gas, manufacturing and fabrication. His expertise lies in hazard and risk assessment, safety cultural development, behavior based safety, MSHA/OSHA compliance and EHS Management Systems (ISO, OHSAS). Brian is also skilled in the area of workplace safety auditing, safety procedure and policy development, supervisor development, employee training and safety incentive programs.

For more information about how your company can create a perspective-based safety culture, contact Brian Owens at bowens@lovitt-touche.com or reach out to your Lovitt & Touché representative.