Occupational safety theories, models and metaphors in the three decades since World War II, in the United States, Britain and the Netherlands: A literature review

Paul Swuste, Coen van Gulijk, Walter Zwaard, Yvette Oostendorp

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

44 Citations (Scopus)


Objective: Which theories, models, and metaphors were developed in the period and countries under study, within what context, and if available based upon what collection of data. Method: For the literature review, original articles were consulted, including volumes of the Dutch safety professional journal 'De Veiligheid' (Safety). Results and conclusions: One theory and three models on accident causation were developed in the domain of safety science. The focus on the causes of accidents and on their prevention was gradually changing from victim behavior, via task aspects to management causes. Willem Winsemius, a Dutch physician, is the father of 'task dynamics theory', explaining, predicting accidents from the reflex reactions and improvisations of workers during process disturbances. Based on a survey of 1300 accidents at the former Dutch steel works Hoogovens, his theory described human behavior as a response reaction, instead of an accident cause. British observational research conducted on more than 2000 accidents also highlighted the relationship between tasks, actions, process disturbances, and accidents. And William Haddon Jr., an American physician introduced the 'epidemiological triangle', and the known 'hazard - barrier - target' model. Finally, the ergonomics domain developed two models on disturbed information flows and inadequate decisions of workers. The increased complexity in the military domain and the process industry, just after World War II initiated a movement to increase system reliability, leading to a number of safety techniques which were not based on systematic research, but were rather a coded collection of practical experiences. The accident proneness theory still remained popular in the professional safety domain in the Netherlands.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)16-27
Number of pages12
JournalSafety Science
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2014
Externally publishedYes


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