Zero Harm: Is it believable

Posted by Andrew McGiffert |22 Apr 13 | 0 comments

A quick Google search for Zero Harm brings up company safety mission statements from some of Australia’s biggest organisations Downer Group, Programmed Maintenance and Brambles to name a few. For the Queensland Government Zero Harm is a way to push its new ‘Zero Harm at Work Leadership Program”.

But what exactly is this ‘Zero Harm’ slogan.

Harm may refer to injury, hurt, damage, detriment, misfortune or loss.

A hazard is a source of potential harm (ISO/IEC Guide 51)

Safety is freedom from harm (ISO/IEC Guide 51)

Therefore Zero Harm means absolute freedom from harm, zero = 0 and nothing more. The absolute removal of sources of harm and absolute removal of hazards. Speaking with employees of organisations with Zero Harm statements it is intriguing to hear their views on the mantra, often believing it is about ‘doing your best’ not necessarily reaching zero. Do you think zero is possible in your own organisation?

A strong element of human nature is that of risk taking. Without taking risks we wouldn’t be where we are as a species. Taking risks is inherent in our genetic make-up.

  • In 1901 the Wright brothers set out to fly a plane that was heavier than air.
  • In 1492 Chrisopher Columbus set sail into the Atlantic Ocean with hope of finding Asia, instead finding the New World.
  • Albert Einstein was an avid sailor but had no idea how to swim.

Not only did Einstein, one of history’s greatest scientists, love to sail and not know how to swim—he often took unnecessary chances while sailing. Put this thinking back into the workplace, a worker decides they can easily reach the box on a high shelf by stepping onto the first shelf momentarily – the worker judges that the apparent risk is worth the productivity gain, as opposed to finding a ladder and takes the risk.

We can either change human behaviour or change the situation. Don’t ask the person to work safer, make the workplace around them safer. In the example above, rather than putting items on the top shelf, prevent items from being placed above 1.5m (assuming an average height of workers). Alternatively you could place a small safety step in every aisle, but again this relies on human behaviour.

In this example is Zero Harm really possible. Is it credible, achievable and being led by the organisation as a whole. Absolutely not. Zero harm is not credible straight away if the safety system has regular failures or known weaknesses. Zero Harm not only starts without credibility, it has the ability to damage the trust in the very leader who introduces it. Workers may see the leader as being naive to how work is performed or how hazards are managed.

Most workers are unable to practically engage with the language, metrics and rhetoric of Zero Harm. It is neither engaging nor motivating for the average worker and needs to be in a language they can understand.

Zero Harm must have a definition, it must be achievable, believable and more than a corporate slogan. I don’t think use of ‘Zero Harm’ as an aspirational goal is necessarily a bad thing, there are some organisations who have adopted it well. Here are a few elements that are often missing from ‘Zero’ programs.

  • The goal must be understood by workers;
  • The goal has a set of strategies and activities that will achieve the goal.
  • It is not isolated but a mantra of all business areas;
  • It is a long term goal 3-5 years;
  • It is led by the current CEO and the next one;
  • Would a specific goal such as ‘zero injuries due to ….’ be more credible.

Tenix a large infrastucture provider in Australia has defined quite well what Zero Harm means to them through a range of ‘cultures’ they seek to achieve in order to create a zero harm environment,

Zero in general can be a dangerous goal. For example what would happen if Toyota decided its new goal was ‘Zero Crashes’, how would it control human behaviour? What happens following the first crash, does the goal lose credibility…

For more reading on the subject I recommend looking up posts and books by Dr Robert Long.

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