Zero Harm persists in confusing companies on safety

Zero Harm = Zero Credibility

Australian lawyer, Andrew Douglas is one of the most passionate safety advocates I have met and he is a dogged critic of the Zero Harm branding present in occupational health and safety thinking. In his latest article at Leading Thought, he discusses Zero Harm and states that:

  1. “It is untrue and neither workers or supervisors believe the concept is true. Therefore it is unsustainable.
  2. The structures mean you get a clean out of low risk, low hanging fruit but your high end risk is unaffected.
  3. The safety knowledge of those most at risk, the workers, is not improved nor is their decision making capacity. Without changing mindsets people will continue to make deadly decisions.
  4. The positive studies do not measure Zero Harm against another process – I don’t doubt that any money and focus on safety will impact safety performance. The issue is it the best, does it reduce the risk of serious injury or death?
  5. The language, metrics and rhetoric of Zero Harm is utterly inaccessible to workers. They need a language in safety they own and understand.”

This level of criticism would do for many corporate safety programs as Zero Harm runs counter to the consultative and collaborative safety management process. Curiously one Australia’s OHS regulators, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland (WHSQ), has bought into the Zero Harm concept applying it to leadership.

It seems that WHSQ’s use of Zero Harm is more of a hook on which to hang a safety leadership program than a specific Zero Harm program. It may differentiate this program from other leadership programs but the application of this type of program can be seen as a criticism of existing management processes and values.

At the same time as Zero Harm strengthens its position in the Australian corporate mind, there is an occasional counterpoint such as “OHS Is Bullshit“, a 2011 blog article by Riskex. This article reruns many of the silly examples of elf “n” safety from the British press but it, and some of the comments, illustrate what the Zero Harm and safety leadership campaigns need to address and how the “truth” about safety is likely to be better accepted if it comes from somewhere other than senior executives.

This supports one of Douglas’ points, that Zero Harm is seen as corporate-speak and not a concept that can be applied at the work face. In some ways Zero Harm reflects the outmoded Bird’s Triangle*. Bird’s Triangle depicts a ratio between fatalities and lower-order incidents however this ratio implies that looking after the small hazards can avoid the higher risk hazards. This may be the case but Douglas says that too much attention is given to these low-risk hazards to the detriment of attending to the high risks. Perhaps the triangle should be thrown away as it seems to encourage a focus on the wrong change elements for workplace safety and the wrong level of the organisational chart.

In some ways, “safety” has become an ineffective term, even a negative term in some areas. It is understandable that some companies and safety professionals would wish to rebrand their skills or activities as something else, like Zero Harm, but a more sustainable strategy would be to work on having Safety regain its credibility. This could be achieved by individuals taking pride in being a safety professional instead of cringing and mumbling their position when asked. It would also help if companies and corporations spoke plainly about Safety rather than trying to have Safety fit with the current, and usually temporary, fashionable corporate jargon.

Safety can include wellness, definitely includes workplace bullying interventions and has always included injury prevention but Safety has not changed. People readily understand the concept even when it is being subject to ridicule. What has changed is the number of activities, illnesses or injuries, and increasingly the geographical location of those work activities, that have been brought under Safety. Some people are struggling with this expanded definition.

The sad fact is that safety professionals, organisations and institutions have failed to keep up with these changes. This fact is illustrated, to some extent, by prominent safety speakers coming increasingly from outside the traditional engineering source, from the disciplines of sociology, psychology, humanities and others. These fresh perspectives are essential for any profession to progress but occasionally these perspectives confuse more than enlighten, and the cult of Zero Harm may be one of those confusions.

Kevin Jones

A great discussion by David Broadbent on the falsity of the triangle can be found HERE

reservoir, victoria, australia
Categories consultation, OHS, psychiatric, research, safety, safety culture, Uncategorized, wellness, workplace, zero harm

12 thoughts on “Zero Harm persists in confusing companies on safety”

  1. Hi there great article, Out of the 20 American companies who were voted the safest in 2014, only 2 had a zero harm policy\’s, we need to get back to the real purpose and basics of safety, we need to work and support the people who are doing the job, listen to what they have to say and action it, zero harm has and will never be a good safety tool, it is developed by the executives and Management who do not have the right tool\’s to listen and learn from their employee\’s

  2. In Bird\’s original work, fatalities were NOT included in the triangle. This appears to be an adaptation by others, probably for propaganda purposes rather than based on any evidence.

  3. I have not taken the time to research the genisis of the term \’Zero Harm\’, but I suspect many such programs are not necessarily derived out of a Safety philosophy within an organisation, so much as a differentiating marketing tool for an originating Safety Consultant company.
    \’Management Speak\’ titles in all kinds of executive training programs are often driven by the need to have a catchy title and a new and \’uniquely insightful\’ program as a commercial reality. These fad-driven programs may have pretty dubious core understanding and, just like \’Zero Defects\’ was an unachievable manufacturing production QC program, there CAN be some useful stuff come out the end of the pipeline. For example, the arguments above that ZH can have utility if viewed as aspirational, have some merit.
    On another front, one of the obvious faults with Bird\’s Triangle is the assumption of relationship equating with causality. If both metrics (minor & major harm) are related in a ratio, that\’s fine, but working on one IN ORDER to affect the other would only have validity if there was causality. It does nothing, however, where a common cause is the source of both kinds of harm. (Understanding that there IS a ratio, however, can be useful if such a ratio exists. Then one could view the incidence of Minor Harm as therefore being PREDICTIVE of Major Harm incidents.) There is always a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but that is bad as it invariably leads to some back injury.
    I appreciate Les\’s approach in tackling the culture and training around self-sacrifice in the Careing Professions. The idea of developing training to counteract instinctive reactions is a kind of rational triage that makes sense.
    Getting the language and program right for both workforce and executives is a challenge. It is fascinating to see the enthusiasm generated by the \’Dumb Ways to Die\’ YouTube. It certainly strikes a chord with workers, but it will be interesting to see what long-term impact this and similar promotions will have. (Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek & Slide seems to have had an impact, so maybe there is hope in developing fun reminders.)

  4. I totally agree with Andy. We need to look at the Zero Harm as an inspirational saying and indeed something that we do aspire to. However as much as we would like it to Zero Harm will never be. It is physically impossible to achieve but we can get close to it by promoting adequate safety procedure and safety officer training. The more businesses and industries we get on board, the closer we come to achieving our goal.

  5. I think most experienced practitioners will agree that ZH is not achievable. However if interpreted as an aspiration ie \”we intend to continuously aim for zero harm\” it becomes more meaningful. If Leaders and their executives do not understand that if they are not aiming to protect \”their most valuable rsesource\” then the world will not protect their business. Simply put, if they make literally \’fatal\’ mistakes that should/could have been avoided then they will have a culture that is probably making mistakes in every other domain and the business is unlikely to last. The issue is that people die and are seriously injured while they wander toward their demise. While ZH is not practicably achievable, the effort to eliminate as many of the serious causes of harm to health and safety must become an axiom and a driving force of Leadership and Regulators. We can all see how much is at stake when it isn\’t.

  6. Hallelujah! Someone\’s dared to publicly challenge this ludicrous terminology! Les Henley\’s discussions re conflicting risks and recent campaigns re \”bring them home safe\” are far more effective because they encourage us to focus on the impact of injury on our own lives…a much stronger motivator for safe behaviour than the trite and obviously impossible \’zero harm\’ silliness.

  7. Hi Kevin,
    I\’m one Safety Professional who has never bought into the \’Zero Harm\’ dialogue. Always though it was BS due to human nature and choice.

    Rather I like to discuss \’Risk Management\’ focussing primarily on recognising hazards and controlling the associated risks. Often the focus is on the immediatley recognisable hazard and we fail to see related but less obvious \’conflicting\’ risks.

    I\’ve found in my current role, in the diabilities sector, that the message is getting through. I believe one of the contributors is the dialogue about choosing between conflicting risks.

    For instance we had a couple of incidents earlier this year where staff attempted to \’catch\’ clients who were falling. One incident was a \’near hit\’ the other resulted in a neck and shoulder injury.

    In the following dialogue I explained the conflicting risks of:
    injury to the client from allowing them to fall
    injury to the staff from attempting to restrain the bodyweight of the client against the force of gravity.

    In many cases in this sector (and, I believe, in the wider heatlh care sector) the staff have \’traditionally\’ placed their bodies on the line to \’protect\’ their clients from injury. And admirable intention.

    However this \’tradition\’ has failed to identify that an injury to themself while saving one client has the potential to render them unavailable to provide service to all of their clients.

    I have a sister who was a registered nurse. She had both shoulders repaired due to rotator cuff damage in 2 separate events from this \’tradition\’. She is now unable to work in her profession.

    Another common conflicting risk issue that I have come across regularly in all industires is \’my life vs my job\’. What good is a job if you\’re dead or seriously maimed?

    I was pleasantly surprised how effective this approach was in getting the staff to discuss and understand the concept of conflicting risks.

    I like to think we\’re winning here as, so far in November 2012, I have only had 2 incidents reported and they were both injury free. Evidence that we are now serioulsy reporting \’near hits\’. And, since January 2012, I\’ve been invited to participate in documenting no less than 20 issue specific risk assessments across this organisatioon.

    The language of \’risk management\’ embodied in the legislation will do for me. And it is not subject to the \’fashionable corporate jargon\’ which rises and fades so rapidly.

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