“Do some good” sounds more effective than achieving “zero harm”

The April 2012 edition of the UK magazine Training Journal makes a statement that is so simple, safety professionals should be kicking themselves.  The safety profession is trying to change the measurement of safety from lag indicators to lead, from negatives to positives, from failures to successes and yet we continue to talk about zero harm.  In Training Journal, Stuart Walkley states that

“…we face a new challenge, not just to ‘do no harm’ but to ‘do some good’ in the workplace, to create a healthy working environment that supports and contributes to our wellbeing.”

“Do some good”.  I would rather be a Do Some Good Manager than a Zero Harm Manager.  Focussing on the safety positive is what I do as a safety adviser but saying that my job is to “do some good” makes me feel better about my job than if I was minimising the negative, which is what the zero harm descriptor does.

Also, “do some good” sits well with the new approach that safety professionals are supposed to have, having to blend the psychosocial hazards into our risk controls approach.

Walkley provides some terrific comparative statistics on workplace injuries.  He compares the deaths and injuries from building the Forth Bridge in the late 1880s (26,000 instances of illnesses or accidents, including 71 deaths, out of a workforce of 4,600)  to those of the Wembley Stadium (one death and one serious injury) and the current Olympic Stadium and Complex (no serious incidents of fatalities to date).  Look how far the management of safety, in the broadest sense, has come in just over a century.

The Training Journal seems to have the human resources sector as its main readership but Walkley broaches the safety and wellness divide by discussing the “interconnectivity” of the two disciplines and, more importantly, the divide between wellness and safety – a divide generated from the two disciplines being in a transition to a combined discipline.

This transition seems a recent phenomenon but Walkley points to the 1948 vision of the World Health Organisation (WHO) on wellness, WHO’s 1995 global strategy on occupational health, and the World Economics Forum’s 2011 report Working Towards Wellness: Measuring Results.  The comparison of the construction projects and the international wellness reports shows the importance of an understanding of OHS history beyond Bird’s pyramid and James Reason’s cheese.

Some have started referring to this century as the “Asian century” but given the safety improvements in the Western world in the 20th century quoted by Walkley, what could the current century be in relation to health and safety?

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

6 thoughts on ““Do some good” sounds more effective than achieving “zero harm””

  1. I agree that “Zero Harm” may be viewed as arrogance – depending how it is ‘sold’ in the workplace, but it is a fairly obvious ‘Management Speak’ development.
    In Quality Management history, ‘Zero Defects’ was another aspirational, but often achievable, production goal. Where a production line could be managed by design, specification, tolerance and monitoring, output could often be refined to a point where every item off the line was within tolerance and to specification.
    It seems not much of a leap, therefore, to see someone borrow the concept and terminology for a safety program or campaign, forgetting that human behaviours are not so amenable to control and imposition of operational tolerances.
    Quality Management Systems moved on to ‘Kaizen’ – the idea of continuous improvement or change for the better: something much more aligned to the outlook championed by this post.
    Trying to encourage an integrating, holistic approach to management systems accross the board should certainly be an objective and would see further progress toward a homegeneous approach by management to EHS, HR and all other management systems – there are many artificial divisions when ‘Divisions’ are allowed to remain feifdoms.

  2. Jen I like the idea of Make a difference Make a change…what a slogan that workplaces could adopt, it has an element of humanizing the workplace.

    Creating “model” workplaces has some merrit if it did not get lost in political or egotistic issues.


  3. For mine, perfectly fine aspirational targets like the “states of grace” targets of zero harm and safety culture, only suffer because they too often get served up with a big dose of bollocks. But bollocks can be used for good, not evil.

    The safety “principle” I’ve found that lodges in people’s heads, and doesn’t suffer from having slippery escape options is: If a safety problem sticks out like dog’s ball, fix it, quickly. (Put that on a slide with the obvious photo and ya can bet the punters wont forget it readily.)

    Giving a punter a lovely, easy to use documented management system is nice, but ya get a real sense of “doing good” when you know the “dog’s balls principle” has stuck.

  4. ZERO HARM is arrogance .

    I thought benchmarks were steps taken to reach an ACHIEVABLE GOAL – when did we decide to start at the highest benchmark? ZERO HARM only brings continued dissapointment to both the safety professional and the workers. This is why the belief that safety does not work exists.
    Reality- its just common sense – small steps-great leaps forward- success is: bringing out a positive attitude towards safety the great achievements will naturally follow..

    We need to be realistic and adopt MAKE A DIFFERENCE-MAKE A CHANGE in all Australian workplaces, only then will we all move forward to believing that what we are doing is positive and is working,

    1. Jen, I keep away from “common sense” as it simplifies safety management too much but I do agree that safety is a series of small improvements that will continue and continue. In some ways I think that is what the IR Minister, Bill Shorten, meant by trying to have people focus on the small hazards that can have big consequences.

      The “zero harm” advoctes would say that they acknowledge zero harm is unattainable but they believe the journey is just as important. The zero harm problem comes from the misunderstanding of the concept by senior managers. They wrongly believe the goal is attainable.

      I would argue that the zero harm/values-based approach could be useful but only after companies have deealth with all the “little” hazards. In fact, if the little hazards are dealt with, the “need” for values-based safety processes should be minimal.

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