John C. Burnham


On his book Accident Prone: A History of Technology, Psychology, and Misfits of the Machine Age

Cover Interview of November 18, 2009

A close-up

A reader of this book would probably be most struck by the many instances of commonplace accidents that one seldom or never thinks about.  Human error is everywhere.  Workers try to bypass safety devices.  Vigilance is often hard to maintain, as when a tram operator was distracted by an attractive woman and did not see the drunk who had fallen asleep on the tracks.  Even in large systems, operator error can occur.

Most striking about accident proneness, however, is the fact that a pattern of excess accidents per given individual had been widely recognized, particularly as populations and technological environments grew.  But only when a label was applied to the phenomenon did proneness to accident make sense to people.  Repeatedly, supervisors would say that they had noticed that some few people were the source of a large proportion of the accidents in the plant or on the rails or roads.  When those supervisors heard the term “accident proneness,” they recognized the classification immediately and started to use the idea and anything they heard or learned about it.  There was early such testimony from rapid transit executives in Germany and the United States, from manufacturers in Britain and other English-speaking countries.  The idea spread because it worked for people.

Not all managers were initially convinced.  A British industrial psychology group reported this incident:  “Our investigator had obtained accurate records of all accidents for a considerable period, and he found one instance of a boy who had already sustained five minor accidents during the period.  As the boy was working in a particularly dangerous job, he was selected, together with several others who also showed high susceptibility, for transfer to other work.  Before the transfer could be made, however, he was caught and lost his hand in the machinery he was cleaning.  Up to this point, there had been considerable doubt on the part of the managing director as to the need for such a detailed accident survey.  Needless to say, those workers who sustained multiple accidents in future were quickly removed from the danger zones.”

Those who worked with groups of children were particularly quick to see the validity of the idea.  Commented Helen Ross of Chicago in 1952, “Years ago, before I knew the term ‘accident proneness,’ I recognized in my summer camp [for girls] the tendency among certain children to have more than their share of accidents.  ‘There goes Jane again,’ or ‘Who do you suppose fell out of the boat?  Mary, of course.’”