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Meet H. W. Heinrich

Many people know about H.W. Heinrich from his writings. Most notable was his book, Industrial Accident Prevention. McGraw Hill Book Company published the first edition in 1931. The book continued through several more editions over the next four decades. It contained details about preventing accidents. However, his name continues to appear in professional papers and publications because of theories about accident classifications, causation and prevention. The accident classification scheme included the ratios among major injury, minor injuries and no-injury cases that is often referred to as the Heinrich Pyramid. The accident causation theory involved five factors describing the accident sequence, often referred to as the Domino Theory. There were also other ratios that were part of his teachings.

The purpose of this article is not to discuss the Heinrich Pyramid or the Domino Theory. That is left to the many authors who have written about them.

The main purpose of this article is to introduce the person, Herbert William (Bill) Heinrich, how he became involved in industrial safety and what he accomplished during his long career in safety.

The Young Heinrich

Herbert W. Heinrich was born October 6, 1886 in Bennington, Vermont. Initially, he completed the sixth grade in 1898. At the time, that was a good education. At the age of 13 he worked in local quarries and woodworking shops. At age 16 he became a machinist apprentice at the American Tool & Machine Company in South Boston, MA. His education likely included a study of shop mathematics, since precision is essential to making successfully machined parts. At age 20 Heinrich became a machinist with knowledge and skills essential for tool making and design of electrical devices.

As a side interest, he became a member of the Polar Bear Club and attained the designation “Polar Bear.” Qualifications to achieve the Polar Bear status required one to cut a hole in the ice at Boston Harbor and swim in the icy waters for at least one minute. He held his membership for several years.

His early opportunities for gaining knowledge, expertise and work experience were quite varied. Multiple and varied employment roles offered those opportunities.

In 1903 he became engaged in seafaring. He began his experience in the Engineering Department of a steamship that plied the seas into the Far East. By 1904 he passed the written and oral examinations to gain an Unlimited Licence – Ocean Steamers as a Third Assistant Engineer. With that qualification he spent the next two years at sea on a merchant ship in the Far East.

With additional knowledge of mathematics and gaining knowledge in mechanical systems and thermodynamic principles, he qualified to take the written examination by the United States government to become a licensed maritime engineering officer. His path to the license also required three years experience in the machinist trade and one year of experience in the engine department of a steamer. In contrast, a person with a degree in mechanical engineering had to have four years of instruction plus one year at sea.

In 1906 Heinrich began working as a civilian for the U.S. Navy on Mare Island, California. His role was a machinist involved in repair, maintenance and inspection of engine room equipment. He also had roles with the main propulsion unit, boilers and other ship and shore installations. His work with the Navy continued for several years and included assignments in Honolulu, Hawaii and the Phillipines.

In 1910 he began work for the General Electric Company in West Lynn, MA. There he did experimental and model work. Then he moved to Hartford, CT and worked as a machinist for Arrow Electric Company.

In 1912 he worked for a short time in Jersey City, New Jersey for the Manhattan Electric Supply Company before returning to Hartford and Arrow Electric in the tool and die making and appliance design departments.

Heinrich Becomes Involved in Safety

H. W.

H. W. “Bill” Heinrich

In 1913 Heinrich joined The Travelers at the urging of the former assistant superintendent at Arrow Electric, George Peterson, who Heinrich got to know and who had joined The Travelers in 1911. Heinrich worked as a boiler and industrial plant inspector, initially at the home office. There he received instructions in inspection work in preparation for a field assignment.

While working at the home office, Heinrich served as a “scrutinizer.” That role reviewed draft reports of inspectors and their recommendations written to insured clients. A scrutinizer checked the draft reports and had responsibility to add recommendations if justified before the reports were released to the clients.

By 1914 Heinrich was assigned to Boston where he took the Massachusetts Boiler Inspection examination. He helped offices in New England and New York State with inspections at facilities not accessible by railroad lines, usually traveling by horse and buggy or horse and sleigh.

In 1917 he moved to the Albany, NY office with a promotion to Senior Inspector. At age 37 in 1918 he joined the U.S. Naval Reserve with rank as a Lieutenant Junior Grade. In August he was called to active duty in WWI and served as an Engineering Officer aboard a merchant vessel involved in the Naval Overseas Transport Service. He received a discharge from the Navy in April 1919 with a rank of Second Lieutenant.

That year he returned to The Travelers and led the newly formed Indemnity Division within the Engineering & Inspection Division. Overall, this division had nearly 200 employees. While in a supervisory role, he also did writing for The Travelers publication called Protection. He also became involved in speaking at local events and conferences. Those experiences led to his becoming an entertaining speaker.

In 1925 he became the Assistant Superintendent of the Engineering & Inspection Division. He remained in that role until his retirement at The Travelers. At some point in his career he became a registered professional engineer (mechanical) in Connecticut.

Somewhere around 1938-1940 he participated as a lecturer at New York State University (now New York University). Safety leaders including those from The Travelers and other companies had established a safety course for undergraduate and graduate level students. A leader of the program that continued for more than 20 years was Dr. John Grimaldi, later known for his own books on safety.

With the declaration of war on Germany and Japan by the United States in 1941, the U.S. Department of Labor gave safety instruction to foremen in war production plants. Many companies and individuals contributed to various aspects of the war effort. Because of his knowledge and visibility, Heinrich was appointed chairman of the War Advisory Board – Safety Section. He worked with former colleagues, some of whom filled military roles. During the war Heinrich visited many offices and installations of the U.S. Army, a role that consumed much of his time. This role led him to engage heavily in safety supervision and writing several publications on the topic. During and shortly after WWII, Heinrich filled other roles, including: Chairman of the War Department Safety Council, Member of the Advisory Board on Fire & Accident Prevention of the Office of the Undersecretary of War, and service on a special committee formed by the Secretary of War to control accident fatalities in the European Theater of Operations immediately following the war.

In 1956 H.W. “Bill” Heinrich retired from The Travelers at age 75 following 54 years of service to the company. He remained somewhat active professionally by chairing the Uniform Boiler and Pressure Vessel Laws Society until 1962.

He died on June 22, 1962 at age 75 in West Hartford, CT.

Personal Information

Sometime during the early 1920s, he married Virginia King, who was from Philadelphia. Little is known about his personal life. However, the couple had at least one daughter.

He had many interests and took on challenges. At one time at the end of WWII he sought to learn French so he could converse with French military. After retirement he took up golf. At one point he sought to learn how to play the violin, since he heard that it was difficult to learn especially as one became older.

Colleagues described him as five feet eight inches tall. At age 55 he was red-faced, thin and wiry. Typically throughout his life he walked with a rapid pace. In his office there was usually a lighted cigarette in the ashtray that led to only two known fires in his wastebasket. He smoked one and one-half packs a day and simply burned twice as many.

He loved puzzles and often challenged colleagues with them. At lunch time he successfully played games: ping-pong, chess, checkers, cards and dominoes. At least in appearance he gave other individuals his undivided attention during conversation.

He was noted for his attention to details. In fact that characteristic may have led to his not being advanced at The Travelers to Supervisor of the Engineering & Inspection Division. Some characterized his fixation on details as being inflexible and complex in his approaches.

Heinrich’s Research and Writings

One of the difficulties of the early part of the 20th century was a lack of accident and injury data. There were very few standards for accident reports and records. Many employers did not create or retain such records. There were few government requirements for employers to report accidents and associated data. Insurance companies did see accident records when employers submitted claims. The Travelers was a leader in compiling and analyzing accident data in order to understand accident causation and accident and injury characteristics. Their goal was to establish ways to reduce accidents and claims in order to ensure they did not lose money on insurance policies they offered and would be likely to make money. Heinrich was engaged in compiling and analyzing claims data for The Travelers. The statistical results led to some of his accident and safety theories and principles.

His wealth of field experience and exposure to a wide array of businesses, operations and facilities also contributed to his thinking and teaching. His research led to insights into the economics of safety and the idea that indirect costs far exceeded direct accident costs. His research and experience led him into issues and publications related to managing safety.

Heinrich was a prolific writer. He contributed numerous essays, presentations and articles to The Travelers publications, such as the The Travelers Standard journal, and the in-house publication, Protection, and at professional meetings and conferences.

As noted at the beginning of this article, his benchmark publication was his book: Industrial Accident Prevention – A Scientific Approach, published by McGraw-Hill Book Company. He actually had a co-writer, E. R. Granniss, who took a less visible role in the authorship. The two men also worked together in other safety matters, including the New York University course and during WWII, since Granniss was then a U.S. Army Colonel. The first edition appeared in print in 1931. Additional editions occurred in 1941, 1950 and 1959 and 1980. For the last edition, others (Nestor R. Roos and Dan Petersen) contributed to its revision and completion.

After WWII much of Heinrich’s efforts focused on safety management. His frequent, intense presentation had the title “Basics of Supervision” but included many details on achieving safety performance. His publications on safety and supervision also included:

Formula for supervision: Outlining the application of supervisory control to secure safe, efficient work performance. [A manual for supervisors and executives]. National Foreman’s Institute, 1949.

The Supervisor’s Safety Manual – With Special Emphasis on Safety and Production. Alfred M. Best Company, 1944

It is difficult to recognize all of his contributions to engineering and safety societies, standards organizations, and companies.


Records show that during his career he held the following licenses, certificates, affiliations and memberships not covered elsewhere in this article:

  • Registered Professional Engineer (Mechanical) Connecticut
  • Boiler Inspector – various states
  • Elevator Inspector – various states
  • Chief Engineer – Steam Vessels – Ocean Unlimited Tonnage
  • National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessels Commission
  • Certificate of Competency for Inspector of Boilers – Massachusetts
  • American Society of Mechanical Engineers
  • American Institute of Electrical Engineers
  • American Society of Safety Engineers
  • Hartford Engineers Club
  • President’s Conference on Industrial Safety
  • Association of General Contractors – Liaison Committee on Safety
  • American Standards Association – Committee Member

Awards and Honors

The Insurance Hall of Fame Medal awarded to H. W. Heinrich (1979)

The Insurance Hall of Fame Medal awarded to H. W. Heinrich (1979)

  • 1952 – American Museum of Safety (New York) – Arthur Williams Memorial Medal
  • 1952 – Conservatoire Nationale des Arts et Metiers (Paris) – Medal
  • 1979 – Insurance Hall of Fame – Inductee
  • 1993 – Safety and Health Hall of Fame International – Inductee


Influencing Factors

H. W. Heinrich did not work alone during his career at The Travelers. He received assistance from his co-workers and staff. Over the years the top leaders of The Travelers supported his efforts to keep The Travelers Engineering Division highly visible and provided financial assistance.

One may also wonder whether other writers of the early 1900s influenced Heinrich’s thinking. Specific records do not exist to tell about that. However, those who mentored Heinrich in safety likely relied on some books and documents from the period as Heinrich also may have. A few books in the bibliography of the first edition (1931) of Industrial Accident Prevention may offer some clues.

One example is E. Boyd Fisher, Mental Causes of Accidents, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1922. The author makes such statements as “An accident…happens only as the result of some interruption of routine – human nature breaks through…” Another quote is “70 percent of accidents are traceable directly to the worker’s fault.” And “If we consider those cases where the cause of the accident and the manner of correcting it lie in the man’s mind as being faults of the worker and subject to blame or discipline…” These concepts lead to a general model of accident causation that lies within a worker’s mind. The author explores nine different aspects of the mind and their relationships to accidents. Could such thinking have contributed to at least portions of Heinrich’s Domino Theory of accident causation and to classification of accidents?

Another reference from the first edition was a study by Walter Bingham and C. S. Slocombe on the differences in performance between motormen and bus operators. They were psychologists who studied applied psychology and were known for developing tests for intelligence, aptitude and other human characteristics. One application involved testing to help businesses to increase efficiency of their workforce. Could the work of Bingham have influenced Heinrich’s theories regarding accidents?

A third book from the reference list was Sydney W. Ashe, Organization in Accident Prevention, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1917. The author devotes considerable attention to obtaining accident data from reports and classifying and analyzing the data. The author also notes the differences and significance of major and minor accidents. Might some of the philosophy of this author have influenced Heinrich’s thinking on accident causation, prevention and ratios?

One will never be able to establish clear linkages, but some relationships in thinking may have existed.

Acknowledgments and References

Little information about H. W. Heinrich the person is available in general. However, the author of this article is indebted to Mary Beth Davidson, who provided several items of information from the archives at Travelers. Of greatest value was a 20 page document titled, H.W. Heinrich – Up Close and Personal, written by William E. Lischeid, CSP and Jesse M. Bird. Mr. Bird worked for Heinrich and had compiled many details from his employment and from extensive research in Travelers archives after he retired. His sources included memos, magazine articles, copies of speeches, and other materials. He presented his extensive work to Travelers while in his 90s. That material became the source for the above document, which formed the primary basis for most of this article. SHHS greatly appreciates Travelers sharing this information along with an image of the induction medal for the Insurance Hall of Fame.

Other References

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