No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Explaining and Understanding Safety Incidents

Safety management often deals with analyzing and preventing safety incidents in various settings, such as workplaces or industrial processes. The social philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey (pictured above) distinguished (1) understanding and (2) explaining. Let’s apply this to the investigation of incidents. Let's apply this to safety!


Understanding involves an active re-experiencing of the human aspects of safety, such as individual behavior, decision-making, and the cultural and historical context within which safety incidents occur. Understanding is about the motives, intentions, and perceptions of individuals involved in the incidents. As safety professionals we aim to gain insights into why people act the way they do in high-risk situations and how their actions are influenced by cultural and social factors.


On the other hand, explaining safety incidents involves examining the underlying structural realities that lead to these incidents. This includes analyzing the systemic factors, organizational processes, and environmental conditions that contribute to safety incidents. As safety professionals, we try to identify and help address the societal and structural aspects that contribute to incidents.


Achieving a comprehensive understanding based on Gestalt perception involves becoming aware of as many ideological filters as possible within one's perception background. In safety management, this can translate to recognizing the various biases and assumptions that can affect risk assessments and decision-making, like for example mistaking safety as the absence of something and taking past success as a guarantee for future safety. As safety professionals we strive to minimize these filters to see the bigger picture and take a more holistic approach to safety.


 The physicist David Deutsch writes: "Reductionism and holism are both mistakes. In reality, explanations do not form a hierarchy with the lowest level being the most fundamental. Rather, explanations at any level of emergence can be fundamental. Abstract entities are real, and can play a role in causing physical phenomena. Causation is itself an abstraction."


So, accident causation is an abstraction. Causation is mostly not a straightforward relationship between a single cause and its effect, but it involves multiple contributing factors, some of which may be abstract or systemic. Therefore, safety professionals take an interdisciplinary approach that incorporates insights from various fields, including cognitive psychology, sociology, and engineering.



Deutsch, D. (2011), The Beginning of Infinity – Explanations that transform the world, New York: Penguin.

Schwartz, G.A. (2018), Verstehen und Erklären - Eine Radikal-Kritik, in: Soziologie Heute, Issue 59, June 2018.