Zero Accident Vision and its OHS potential

In 2013 the  Safety Science journal allowed open access to an article that discusses “The case for research into the zero accident vision” (ZAV). The terminology is slightly different but seems compatible with the “zero harm” trend occurring in Australia. The authors acknowledge that

“…. many companies with a good safety reputation have adopted a zero accident vision, yet there is very little scientific research in this field.” (link added)

Although the discussion revolves around experience in Finland and Finland has a unique culture, the concepts discussed are indicative of the ZAV:

  • “accounting for complex contexts;
  • setting up norms, rules and performance indicators;
  • identifying the role of safety climate and safety culture;
  • studying human behavior.”

The authors’ short discussion of context is important as it acknowledges the state of knowledge of hazards and advocates systemic analysis.  It also mentions dealing with ‘normal accidents” in complex settings that leads to either looking for safer substitutes or ‘high reliability theory’ and ‘resilience engineering’. Context is vital but there is also the trap of paying too much attention to context and not enough to the hazard, a situation that can often happen with wellbeing programs. On the issue of norms and rules, the authors discuss the rationalisation of work practices, context and psychological issues through audit and the compulsion to measure safety. Such a ‘traditional’ approach can work with knowable hazards but, the authors say, less so for “complex, ambiguous or chaotic risks or situations” that contemporary companies face.

The article also discusses the trend away from trying to measure a safety culture to measuring a safety climate – “the surface manifestation of the underlying culture” that is observable through psychometric and qualitative approaches.  There is potential for additional articles based on the discussion of trust, morals, values and organisational subcultures. (On trust, I strongly recommend Neil Gunningham’s book on mine safety)

When discussing human behaviour, the authors acknowledge the role of senior executive safety leadership but include the following quote from Maitlis and Sonenshein:

“Organizational change gets enacted through middle managers who mediate the sense-making between top managers and employees on the frontline to affect both cognitions and actions”

This is not to say that these middle managers or supervisors should therefore bear the brunt of the responsibility and accountability for safety, only that they are the most effective translators of corporate intentions into workplace reality. It was also refreshing to hear some praise for the importance of the experience and wisdom of workers. The article also acknowledges that at least one holistic model of safety management that blends safety and security measures

“…globally addresses safety and not precisely the prevention of accidents causing deaths or permanent injuries…”

This is an important point for many modern safety programs claim to reduce safety costs (ie. workers compensation, primarily) yet seem to do little for preventing harm.  Such programs are attractive to managers and executives who are more comfortable with seeing safety as a cost, or a figure on a balance sheet, rather than an injury or illness to a person that results in a diminished quality of life.

When anyone promotes any safety program, one should always ask “how is this reducing the potential injuries and illnesses of my workers?”  Reducing harm will, logically, reduce the cost of managing injured workers as well as maintaining a productive and healthy workforce.

On ZAV the article mentions DuPont and Shell and the growth of ZAV through the 1990s but also stresses that

“ZAV was developed by industries and does not stem directly from safety theories.”

This may be part of the reason for scepticism of ZAV and zero harm from large parts of the established safety profession and certainly part of the reason that independent research into ZAV is so scarce.

Curiously the authors are critical of the emphasis being placed on safety leadership and state that

“… management commitment [to control risks] is not self-evident in many industries”

and that by seeing safety as predominantly a problem solving exercise

“When the safety problem is solved, management commitment often vanishes, resulting in problematic conditions for any future accident prevention activity.”

The authors praise some elements of the human resources profession, particularly its operation of a “commitment strategy” saying that

“ZAV is not a risk control strategy, but a safety commitment strategy. It is an ambition the company commits itself to in order to achieve better safety performance.”

The article concludes with a good summary of the drivers of change in occupational safety but also almost a plea for serious research onto the opportunities presented by seeing safety as a commitment strategy with ZAV as one of the family of zero visions. There is much in this article for the safety professional even though so many issues are only touched upon.  Yet the extensive references encourages the reader to follow the quotes to the original research even though much exists behind paywalls. (Go to the local OHS regulator’s library, like I do)

For those of us wrapped in the zero harm debate in Australia the article provides a fresh context for examining the role of zero accident vision.  There remain many charlatans in the zero harm area or rather spruikers that know a little and exploit the temptation of the intuitive link between a worker and an incident but this article suggests pathways for safety professionals to educate themselves within and outside the OHS discipline on the potential of commitment strategies.

It may also push us to talk with HR professionals about a concept that is well-established in their discipline but challenging in OHS.  It also seems to be a strategy with which senior executives are comfortable.

Kevin Jones

4 thoughts on “Zero Accident Vision and its OHS potential”

  1. Hi Kevin

    Interesting, since I was born in Finland and still have contacts and family over there.

    One such a contact said that they have to follow strict guidelines as a sub-contractor when working for a company, or any employer.

    If they don’t, the system allows for a “ticket” on the spot, which usually means a fine. I suggested that he’d close of the whole area

    he would be performing his work, until finished. That way anyone coming into “his” work area would have to follow his “strict” but

    hopefully “reasonable” safety guidelines/rules. That would of course lead to other issues …



  2. The problem with the whole polarisation of this issue is the amazing ignorance about the priming of discourse and language to shape culture.

    I don\’t oppose zero ideology and discourse because it is some cynical exercise but rather the discourse of perfectionism and absolutes in any arena is dangerous, dehumanising, anti-learning and in denial of human reality.

    To speak in perfectionist language is so strange and \’primes\’ people psychological for a whole range of by-products and trajectories that are hidden but teleological in the methodology of the zero disposition. Goals are justifications and the astounding naivity of the psychology of goals is testament to the way the safety industry is bogged down in simplistic binary oppositional thinking.

    We don\’t think or speak like this in any other arena of life just in the poor old safety industry. Just imagine if we parented under the discourse and rubrik of zero?

    Words change your brain, that is why we don\’t use certain words in our daily discourse, offensive words are offensive for a reason and the dismissal of words as just semantics is just dumb avoidance.

    The psychology of semiotics and semiology were very important to the Nazi\’s and Macdonalds why does this industry think not? If you set and talk about perfectionist targets and visions it affects you and the way you operate just as if you immerse your self in any culture it will also affect you. We are social beings and shaped by social arrangements.

    I look at the absurdities of the safety industry today, so well articulated by Dekker in his recent book, and no wonder the safety industry is so absurdly fixated with meaningless activity. The fruits of zero are plain to see.

  3. Smacks a bit of \”culture of safety\” for \”zero harmists\”. (And I stick with the old – school usage of culture of safety or safety culture – the aspirational target Hopkins refers to in his book \”Safety, Culture and Risk…\”.)

    But I do give a \”hear hear\” to the call for \”…additional articles based on the discussion of trust, morals, values and organisational subcultures.\” And for mine, I think there is much to be said for keepin\’ it simple.

    The \”c-suite\” audience (the heavy hitter Executive group in a company) will always look for simple, succinct management targets, quite naturally. And I think zero harm resonates with the c-suite because of its (ostensible) simplicity. But we know how it can be an attitudinal bed of coals: cross it ya gunna get burnt eventually.

    Your reference Kevin to the \”family of zero visions\” had me thinkin\’ about what zero targets the c-suite could be considering. And I think zero safety cynicism could be a pearler.

    Zero harm and all that stuff falls over as a genuinely useful target because it has so many elements the c-suite have relatively little direct control over. By contrast, promoting a sense of confidence in management commitment to practical safety improvement is all about what the c-suite directly influences: \”walking the talk\”, demonstrating openness and honesty, generally producing a sense of confidence that management is trying its best to make work safer.

    It\’s pretty obvious that sort of target infers there will be a host of practical things that must be done to achieve zero safety cynicism. But, unlike zero harm, it\’s not a ticking bomb. Have a zero harm target and every injury, no matter minor will trigger the natural inclination to be cynical about the target, irrespective of even a very serious intent to get to zero harm. Have a zero safety cynicism target and failures (which will happen) and the failure can be measured against the bigger picture perceptions of how fair dinkum the c-suite is. Of course, if management consistently fails to deliver on promises and use \”smoke and mirrors\” to disguise disinterest in genuine safety improvements, the zero safety cynicism target is no more that a few words on safety policy. And everyone is soooo over that sort of thing.

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