Licensed Professional Engineers



A newsletter dedicated to keeping attorneys informed of the technical side of product liability cases.

Issue 73: Spring 2019

Safety As a Cultural Value

By John L. Ryan, P.E.

The attitudes, knowledge, and customs of people are cultural influences that pervade every aspect of our lives as humans, including safety. These cultural influences vary from geographic regions and groups of people. Cultural influences impact safety by what perspective a society takes towards accidents, who or what they assign blame to, and how they believe safety should be improved. This issue of Forensic Clues will take a brief look at changes in the culture of safety in the United States in the last 80 years, how it has changed, and what the impact of those changes are on modern theories of safety, actual safety for workers, as well as the impact on litigation.

A look at historic texts on industrial safety gives a glimpse of what the cultural attitude towards safety was in the past. From the 1941 publication Industrial Accident Prevention – A Scientific Approach, 2 nd Edition, H.W. Heinrich, McGraw-Hill :

“An accident can occur only when preceded by or accompanied and directly caused by one or both of two circumstances – the unsafe act of a person and the existence of a mechanical or physical hazard.

The unsafe acts of persons are responsible for the majority of accidents…Management has the best opportunity and ability to prevent accident occurrence, and therefore should assume the responsibility... The several factors in the accident occurrence series are given in chronological order in the following list:

Ancestry and social environment: Recklessness, stubbornness, avariciousness, and other undesirable traits of character may be passed along through inheritance. Environment may develop undesirable traits of character or may interfere with education. Both inheritance and environment cause faults of person.

Fault of person: Inherited or acquired faults of persons; such as recklessness, violent temper, nervousness, excitability, inconsiderateness, ignorance of safe practice, etc., constitute proximate reasons for committing unsafe acts or for the existence of mechanical or physical hazards.

Unsafe act and/or mechanical or physical hazard: Unsafe performance of persons, such as standing under suspended loads, starting machinery without warning, horseplay, and removal of safeguards; and mechanical or physical hazards, such as unguarded gears, unguarded point of operation, absence of rail guards, and insufficient light, result directly in accidents.”

The philosophy of mitigation of hazards at the time clearly puts training personnel as the priority:

“Remedial action in accident prevention may be grouped roughly in six classifications: Education, engineering revision, placing, discipline, medical treatment, psychology”


There are signs however of a shift towards the realization that more effective methods of hazard control may involve making machines safer: “ In the same breath it can be truthfully said that although man failure causes the most accidents, machine guarding and engineering revision are nevertheless important factors in preventing the most accidents….In these days of advanced engineering practice there are few machines or mechanical processes that cannot be made almost wholly safe. “

By 1951 , there are clear shifts in the attitude towards safety: (Accident Prevention Manual, 1951)

“One of the most important factors which impedes acceptance of principles of correct machine guarding is the too prevalent idea that it is enough to guard a machine so that the operator must be constantly alert to compensate for the inadequacy of the guard, and thereby escape injury. It is illogical and an evasion of responsibility by management to expect the most reliable worker always to be alert when working close to unguarded, moving machinery. In such cases, if the condition is allowed to continue, an accident is virtually certain.”

More from 1951 Accident Prevention Manual:

Protection of workers from accidental injury and damage to health is a responsibility of management. Progressive management has long accepted this responsibility; if justification is needed three major reasons may be cited:

Legal obligation: All states have laws which require employers not only to pay for injuries suffered by their workers but also to conform to reasonable standards for safety in their operations.

Social responsibilities: Safe operation is a moral obligation imposed by modern society. The trend to increasing emphasis on accident prevention has been evident for many years. Management which fails to accept its responsibility for safety will find that public opinion will support increasing governmental regulation.

Economic necessity: One of the most compelling reasons for accident prevention is that it is good business. Prevention costs less than accidents, a fact that has been proved abundantly in the experience of thousands of industrial operations.

Essentially it appears that less burden for industrial safety is placed on workers, and more so placed on leadership, as well as having machinery with adequate safeties.

In more recent years, the shift of focus from blaming accidents on employee or worker error to ensuring machines have necessary safeguards and unnecessary hazards have been eliminated from the design is clearly seen in the 12th Edition of the Accident Prevention Manual ( 2001, National Safety Council):

“To achieve the greatest effectiveness in hazard avoidance, elimination, or control, companies should apply the following priorities to all design and redesign processes.

First priority: Design for minimum risk - From the very beginning, the top priority should be to eliminate hazards in the design process.

Second priority: Incorporate safety devices - If hazards cannot be eliminated or their risks adequately reduced through design selection, the next step is to reduce risks to an acceptable level. Companies can accomplish this step through the use of fixed, automatic, or other protective safety design features or devices.

Third priority: Provide warning devices - In some cases, identified hazards cannot be eliminated or their risks reduced to an acceptable level through initial design decisions or through the incorporated safety devices. Under these conditions, companies should develop systems to detect hazardous conditions and warn personnel of the hazards.

Fourth priority: Develop and implement operating procedures and employee training programs - Where it is impractical to eliminate hazards or reduce their risks to an acceptable level through design selection, incorporating safety devices, or warning devices, companies should develop and implement safe operating procedures and use safety training programs

Fifth priority: Use personal protective equipment - When all other techniques cannot eliminate or control a hazard, employees should be given personal protective equipment to prevent injuries and illnesses.”

The shift in responsibility for accidents from human error to adequate safety systems and a safe design translates to a safer work environment, lower production costs, happier employees, and a legal system that holds machine manufacturers responsible for machinery that does not meet modern standards for safety. This shift over time is partially due to the awareness of the fact that people will make mistakes, and that repetitive tasks with hazardous machinery will result in lower attention, as well as reduced perceived hazardousness of the machine which negatively impacts the ability of a person to protect themselves from hazards.

How We Can Help

At MASE, we can determine the cause of an accident based on modern standards of safety, identify contributing defects, whether human behavior was a part of the accident, and what would have prevented the accident. We offer full service mechanical engineering expert witness services. Call us at (855) 627-6273 / email

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