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:
- “It is untrue and neither workers or supervisors believe the concept is true. Therefore it is unsustainable.
- The structures mean you get a clean out of low risk, low hanging fruit but your high end risk is unaffected.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
A great discussion by David Broadbent on the falsity of the triangle can be found HERE