The Role of Beliefs in Accident Prevention

The Role of Beliefs in Accident Prevention

An architect guides you on how to stay safe in the work environment.


There are organizations that believe that accidents are caused by some short coming on the part of the worker. The underlying premise is based the domino effect theory of accident causation proposed by Heinrich. Preventable injuries culminate from a series of sequential events, as represented by five dominos. The first represents the task or situation, the second represents some faulty worker decision, followed by the unsafe action, which leads to an accident resulting in the inevitable injury. By tipping the first domino, all tend to fall, and by removing the second or third domino, the accident can be eliminated. Hence, the belief that workers decisions or actions are the primary cause of accidents.

Two major research studies findings supported this conclusion. The first by HW Heinrich in 1931 where he analyzed more than 70,000 accidents. He found that:

  • 88 percent of injuries resulted from actions of employees.
  • 10 percent of the accidents were traced to hazards involving the physical environment
  • 2 percent of the accidents’ cause could not be ascertained.

In 1966 FE Bird analyzed more than 1.7 million accident reports from hundreds of companies and concluded that:

  • 95 percent of injuries resulted from actions of employees.
  • 5 percent of the accidents were traced to causes from the physical environment.

These studies confirmed that most accidents were caused by the workers. This focused intervention is about changing their actions or behaviors in order to reduce and eliminate accidents.

Beliefs Regarding Accident Causation

Another point to consider is the perception of accident causation affected by beliefs associated with individual variables, such as: age, sex, experience, personality, motivation, perception, needs, expectations, etc.

In construction, all people involved—from the workers to supervisors, managers or executives—have some understanding of risk and its existence on worksites. However, each have a different opinion as to how this results in accidents and injuries and how to deal with this issue. This way of thinking fundamentally impacts the way safety is addressed and the effectiveness of preventive measures. To some degree, this varies in organizations based on sophistication and size, the owners they work for, the partners they utilize, or the industry sector. Workers who need the work will generally accept a higher level of risk, work in environments that are more hazardous and use tools that may be poorly maintained or inappropriate for the task. Risk may be taken for convenience, out of carelessness or out of ignorance, such as: the lack of understanding systems, policies, practices and procedures. This may create situations that allow risks to enter into the work process or the belief that only worker’s acts are the primary source of risk in the work environment.

On the worker's part, risk taking may be associated with confidence in his/her ability to deal with the risks involved due to past experience, confidence in skills, underestimating the level of risk or even underestimating the level of exposure as well as the possible fatalistic belief toward risk and accidents. The reasons given for accidents by workers provide a window into their attitudes and beliefs about safety, accident causation or the confidence they have in their ability to deal with hazardous work situations.

Beliefs about accident causation establish the basis for the design of preventive measures, its implementations and procedures of how to deal with the risk when they are encountered. Accident attribution usually depends on who is explaining the accident. The involved party (worker) usually attributes it to operational factors. This may cover such things as a time crunch, availability of proper tools/equipment and a lack of protective measures. They may also attribute it to the management factors, which may cover such things as little to no concern for safety, a lack of proper planning or a focus on productivity, to name a few. However, they may simply attribute the accident to bad luck.

The people explaining the accident who are not involved in it (supervisors, managers, experts, etc.) attribute it to rather different (internal) causes. This generally focuses on faults on the worker's part. They may mention such things as inattention, inexperience, lack of focus, ignorance, not using common sense, failure to follow good work practices or even downright stupidity. This is one example of looking at the same accident but attributing it to different causes, stemming from different beliefs about accident causation.

Another reason for the attribution of the accident (the workers pointing to management while management is pointing to the workers) may be driven by the underlying social, economic, or legal implications. These biases may be motivated or driven by self-protection, one's belief system, one's position in the organization, or possible involvement in causation, to name a few. This posture and ultimate goal are defensive in nature. The positions of those involved will become more entrenched and will be greatly affected by the seriousness of the accident and the ultimate potential outcome of the situation.


Beliefs involving the impact of risk on the worker's safety and the perceived benefit of risk taking should be a factor that is assessed when considering or evaluating the motivation underlying the resulting behavior. Depending on the situation, beliefs can positively or negatively affect safety and its management. Beliefs about control are important to accident analysis and the explanations of causation. By gaining insight into such beliefs and taking those into account, accidents may be analyzed realistically and robust preventive measure can be devised and implemented.

The importance that beliefs play in workplace safety and its management has been identified in numerous research studies. Researchers have also verified that subjective judgment by people is a major component in any risk assessment. If such judgment is faulty, the risk management process and efforts will, in all likelihood, be misdirected and garner inferior or have no beneficial results. It has been asserted that in reality, many accident preventive measures are driven by causal inferences rather than the actual drivers of such events.

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