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The 80/20 Rule in Safety – a Few People, a Lot of Incidents

January 4, 2017

pareto-principle-safety.jpgYou’ve probably heard of the "80/20 Rule" many times before, or at the very least, you’re familiar with the concept. The 80/20 Rule refers to Pareto’s Principle, or Pareto’s Law. This is basically the observation that about 80% of outcomes or results are attributable to about 20% of inputs or activities.

It's named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who developed a theory and formula which described that that twenty percent of the people in Italy owned eighty percent of the wealth. Following this, Dr. Joseph M. Juran attributed the 80/20 Rule to Pareto in the 1940’s and called it Pareto's Principle. It has since been applied to many fields of study, including economics, business, science, and sports.

Perhaps you have experienced this in different areas of your work or personal life, where a few things, or people, lead to the majority of outcomes (whether positive or negative). For example, have you ever felt like:

  • You spend most of your time dealing with problems or issues related to just a few of your projects, employees or customers?

  • During training sessions or classes, most of the discussion comes from just a few participants?

  • Most of your team’s productivity comes from a small number of your team members?

  • The majority of your company’s profits come from just a handful of “big” customers?

We’ve all experienced these types of situations, where the 80/20 Rule seems to accurately describe the biggest sources that contribute to the results and outcomes that we observe. But what is interesting is the idea that this could apply to workplace injuries. Specifically, the majority of a company’s safety incidents being incurred by just a small proportion of the workforce, and more importantly – a small number of employees involved in multiple incidents.

It’s a trend that has been observed and written about in recent years. One example is a study conducted by the Transportation Research Safety Board and sponsored by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)*. This study looked at nearly 1,700 drivers over 3 years and analyzed data from thousands of roadside inspections, crashes, incidents and driver safety violations. Interestingly they found that 20% of drivers were involved in 79% of all crashes/incidents and 76% of all violations. In essence, the 80/20 rule, as shown in the graph below.8020-rule.jpg

However, this data trend is not limited to trucking or transportation. It’s being observed in many other industries, and we have been observing it in many of the company datasets that we analyze. It is also a topic that I am being increasingly asked about by Safety VPs and professionals.

Here are a just few recent examples we have observed when analyzing company datasets:

1) Construction and Maintenance Field Services

A study across 3 sites operated by a global construction and maintenance services contractor

  • We investigated 3 large sites where this organization was the primary nested contractor responsible for day-to-day operations; 2 of the locations were petrochemical facilities and one was a minerals mine site

  • A total of 366 skilled trades and crafts employees across all sites were included in the study

  • Going back 3 years, the company reported over 1,500 total safety incidents (these included near miss events, property damage and motor vehicle incidents, in addition to first aids and recordables) at these 3 sites

  • Surprisingly, all of these incidents were associated with only 6% of all employees

2) Food Processing Industry 

A large processing facility in the U.S. owned by a global Fortune 1000 food company

  • We analyzed a subset of 181 entry-level hourly employees

  • Going back 6 months, there were a total of 20 work-related injuries (first aids or recordables)

  • 85% of these injuries were incurred by only 15% of the employees in the sample

3) Petrochemical Industry 

A U.S. oil and gas refinery employing nearly 1000 people

  • In a dataset of 796 operators and crafts full-time employees, there were a total of 278 injuries (first aids or recordables)

  • Only 22% (177 out of 796) of the employee population accounted for all safety incidents

  • Over one-third of the employees who were involved in a safety incident had multiple incidents

  • 20 individuals had 3 or more incidents with some having as many as 9!

These are just some examples of the type of data trends we are observing recently. There are many others we have come across when analyzing incident data.

While we might expect a smaller subset of employees to be associated with the majority of injuries, some of these percentages and ratios are quite disproportionate in terms of a few people being involved in most, if not all, of the safety incidents. What really highlights this trend, however, is the high frequency of instances where one employee is involved in multiple incidents or injuries in a relatively short amount of time.

Taken together, this points to what we often allude to, which is that injuries are not distributed equally across the population, or even within an organization, department or job family. In the datasets described above, we have had the opportunity to administer online psychometric assessments (measuring a set of SafetyDNA traits) to these individuals and compare those assessment scores to each individual’s history of injuries and incidents.

In these cases, we have consistently found that the SafetyDNA trait scores identify those who have had incidents versus those who have had none, even in cases where we take into account the risk level (using a risk matrix) of the job and experience of the individual.

Related: 3 Ways SafetyDNA Reduces Exposure to Injury

Why would we observe this finding? Because published research studies have shown numerous times now that individual differences such as traits, abilities and values are very predictive of safe behavior and injury likelihood and these characteristics are stable over time. As a result, we will observe a small subset of individuals have much higher incident involvement over time than others, even when environmental factors (e.g., hazards, training, safety culture) are held constant.

Does that mean that a person is the sole “cause” of a safety incident, or that it’s always the employee’s fault? Of course not. Injuries are the result of many factors, both situational and individual. We know that. What this data does tell us, however, is that we cannot overlook the role of the individual and their SafetyDNA.

It’s important to realize that there is a greater likelihood statistically for some individuals because of their situation as well as their own personal characteristics and behaviors. And if that is the case, wouldn’t it be helpful for someone to know proactively if they might be more predisposed to be at risk in a hazardous work situation? When the ultimate goal is to prevent injuries and keep our employees safe, every bit of information helps.

SafetyDNA The Science Behind Personal Safety


*Knipling, R.R., Boyle, L.N, Hickman, J.S., York, J.S., Daecher, C., Olsen, E.C., & Prailey, T.D. (2004). CTBSSP Synthesis Report 4: Individual Differences and the “High Risk” Commercial Driver, Commercial Driver, Commercial Truck and Bus Synthesis Program. Transportation Research Board, National Research Council, Washington, D.C.

Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. is the Director of Corporate Safety Solutions at PSI. He manages the development and implementation of all safety solutions and services, which address some of the critical challenges faced by organizations today in workplace safety.