Safety Controversy: “Zero Harm”

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Safety Controversy: “Zero Harm”
Gary Wong, Premium Member
Safety is an ethical responsibility. There is the belief the only ethically and morally acceptable accident goal is Zero; that is, one absolutely cannot allow harm, injury, or disease. On the other hand, how realistic is it to demand perfection from fallible humans, machines and systems?
There are numerous organizations with a Zero Harm safety policy. For example, participating members are listed in New Zealand under an umbrella organization. Whole industries have adopted Zero Harm such as the Canadian mining industry.
Despite the efforts, the trend in reduction of accidents has slowed in many countries. A major reason has been rapid changes impacting the labour market such as an aging workforce, outsourcing, technologies. The concern prompted action at the XXI World Congress on Safety & Health in 2017 to launch a global Vision Zero Campaign. The campaign supports and complements multiple related safety and health initiatives under the common theme of “Vision Zero”. Other labels frequently used are Zero Accident Vision (ZAV), Zero Harm, No Harm.

Not everyone in the OSH community agrees with Vision Zero. Many are troubled with setting a goal of zero accidents or harm. A major concern expressed is that Zero Harm policies whilst failing to reduce accidents stymie lessons learned from failures. Without learning, an organization is unable to adapt and continuously improve. Opponents who believe the foundations of Zero Harm are weak provide the following reasons:
  • It builds upon the unrealistic premises that all accidents are preventable. It assumes humans are perfect and infallible. The expectation is for people to operate tools and machines within systems in total sync unhindered by uncontrollable external forces. It ignores the randomness and complexity of the socio-technical work environment and nature of life.
  • A ‘Zero goal’ is not SMART and does not pass the Dead Man’s test.
  • The absence of accidents is not the same as the presence of safety. It can give people the wrong impression that all is safe and lull them into the Zone of Complacency.
  • What happens after you reach zero? Once you’ve reached the top, the only path remaining is down. To hold a certain level at all cost can be extremely frustrating. Maintaining the status quo is not very motivating. Case in point: The Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. With seven years without a lost-time accident, an installation exploded, killing 11 workers and doing considerable environmental damage.
  • A Zero Harm system can be gamed. Selecting what will be counted or not counted constitutes fixing the rules of the game. Many organizations only deal with ‘hard’ safety and don’t count ‘soft’ occupational health incidents. Very strange, since exposure to harmful chemicals and toxic substances are a bigger problem when examining long-term effects, prolonged lost time absences, and deaths from non-recoverable illness.
    People play the game by choosing to report or not report. Some will be afraid to spoil the seemingly perfect performance record especially in a culture where errors are not tolerated. Hidden psychological stress can crush people and provoke depression, anxiety, distrust and mental disturbances.

One study of the UK construction industry found working on a project subject to a zero safety policy actually appeared to slightly increase the likelihood of having a serious life-changing accident or fatality; a possible ‘Zero paradox’. Although these findings should be treated with caution, they suggest that the apparent countertrend towards abandoning Zero Harm amongst some large organizations is well-founded.

The win-lose battle between safety professionals is unnecessary. Professor Rob Long laments: "No other concept in safety has ever caused more divide, debate and long term damage to safety than that of Zero Harm." There are, however, some merits about Zero as stated by Sidney Dekker “…in a complex, dynamic, resource-constrained and goal-conflicted world, zero is not an achievable target, but a zero commitment may be worth some encouragement.”
One way to sidestep the controversy is to view Safety as an emergent property of a complex adaptive system.The Vision Zero debate is avoided because safety isn’t measured using accidents as Safety KPIs. In its place is the ongoing monitoring of conditions that enable safety to emerge. In contrast to the Dead Man’s test, focus on measuring what a live human being can do better than a corpse such as building trusting relationships, learning from both success and failure, caring for each other.
We cannot prevent everything, but that does not diminish the ethical responsibility of managers to do their best in a complex world.

⇒What are your experiences and learnings about zero harm and how organizations measure their safety performance?

Carsten Busch (2016) Safety Myth 101. Mysen: Mind The Risk.
Rob Long (2012) For The Love of Zero: Human Fallibility and Risk. Kambah, ACT: Scotoma Press.
Sidney Dekker, Robert Long, Jean-Luc Wybo (2015) Zero vision and a Western salvation narrative.
John Smallwood, Fidelis Emuze (2016) Towards Zero Fatalities, Injuries, and Disease in Construction
. 4-8-2018


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