Zero Harm is dead, long live ……whatever comes next

Zero Harm was an enormously popular motivational aim for OHS.  It originated as a response in some large organisations where safety performance was plateauing and who felt that they had achieved as much as they could in redesigning work and improving physical safety.  The plateauing led to frustration and a reassessment of safety practices.  The remaining variable was seen to be the worker and so slogans were instigated to increase the care (or mindfulness) of workers.

However, this assessment seems to have taken the traditional, and shallow, approach.  One variable is, of course the worker but the assessors failed to see that the organisational structure and operations were, or should be, variable too.  In the words of the current Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, this variability, this adaptability, could lead to innovation, economic growth and increased sustainability.

The promotion of the zero harm approach to safety could be seen as a safety dead-end and an indication that organisations were fixed on only seeing the dead-end.  Safety thinkers, and there are a few, offered ways out of the dead-end by thinking differently about what we know.

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Full time at union OHS representatives conference

2015-10-27 HSR Conference brochureThe Health and Safety Representatives’ Conference, organised by the Victorian Trades Hall Council as part of Victoria’s WorkSafe Week, was notable for the lack of politics. Previous conferences have often focussed on political campaigns such as Your Rights At Work but this was largely absent from the presentations.  There were some political questions from the floor but that was expected.

The conference had some particular highlights relevant to the broader Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) profession.

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New book challenges current OHS trends

Quinlan coverProfessor Michael Quinlan has a new book that focuses on lessons from recent mining disasters but, as with the best of occupational health and safety (OHS) books, it challenges orthodoxies.  Some OHS consultants and experts have built careers on these orthodoxies, trends and fads, and will feel uncomfortable with the evidence put forward by Quinlan in “Ten Pathways to Death and Disaster – Learning from Fatal Incidents in Mines and Other High Hazard Workplaces“. The honesty and humanity in this book makes it an essential part of any OHS professional’s library.

Quinlan establishes an important tenet from the very start:

“… knowledge is not created in a social vacuum.” (page xi)

This simple dictum is vital to an understanding of the true causal factors on OHS decision-making.  People die from OHS failures.  Politicians create laws and situations that can encourage failures, increase risk and can provide a veneer of respect for heartlessness and exploitation.  Business owners may feel pressured to place production before safety.  Some OHS writers and advocates stop, often unconsciously, at the point where their theory or market research would fail scrutiny.  Some apply critical thought only “as far as is reasonably practicable” to continue a business activity that is short-term or to sell their consultancy package to gullible or naive corporate executives.

Quinlan writes of the “political economy of safety”:

“The political economy perspective argues that safety, including workplace disasters, can only be understood in the context of the distribution of wealth and power within societies, and dominant social policy paradigms that privilege markets and profit, production or economic growth over safety.” (page 24, emphasis added)

To many readers this may sound like socialism in its mention of wealth distribution and power but such a perspective is valid even though it may be unfashionable.  Such a broad perspective allows for a critical assessment of other OHS research approaches such as, for instance, the culture advocates. 

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Zero Accident Vision and its OHS potential

Free Access

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. Continue reading “Zero Accident Vision and its OHS potential”

“Safety” deserves to be supported not replaced or rephrased

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worksafe-0125_lr-2SafetyAtWorkBlog has written previously that the term “safety” seems to have fallen out of favour with some preferring terms such as “zero harm”. In November 2012 I wrote:

“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.”

I was reminded of this when reading an article in the latest edition (71) of Industry Update, a safety equipment publication that publishes many advertorials.  Dr Marcus Cattani wrote:

“I don’t use the “safe” word anymore! The “s” word has such a poor reputation I find it can turn people away.

If people turn away from “safe” as a word this places great pressure on the safety strategies of OHS regulators and governments.  Does the community believe that safety is different from what the regulators believe?  I don’t think so and reckon that the success of the fundamental social values espoused through the various incarnations of WorkSafe Victoria’s Homecomings advertisement illustrates the common understanding of safety. Continue reading ““Safety” deserves to be supported not replaced or rephrased”