Redefining Safety – What is wrong with focusing on Zero Harm?

  • August 2, 2019
  • John Barclay

There is no doubt safety is in a crisis right now. Over the years overall safety has improved but nobody is able to say if the absence of a high injury quotes is proof of the presence of safety and the recent fatalities are evidence that safety isn’t always present.

That brings us to the question why hasn’t safety further improved? It seems that the concepts and strategies that have taken us to where we are now also seem to be the problems that are inhibiting for the progress we need.

Dr. John Green, Senior Vice President and Chief Safety Officer of Aecton Group, Canada says “The doctrine of separating people from danger by implementing increasing layers of constraint may once have yielded positive returns but in today’s fast-changing globalised, competitive and technology-driven world such notions are increasingly inadequate and counterproductive.”

One of those old concepts is the concept of Zero Harm. Zero is an absolute and doesn’t leave any room for fallibility and according to Dr. Robert Lang, an expert in social psychology, the zero-harm approach drives people to perfection. You probably ask what is wrong with perfection? If you take a look into the textbook for mental health in Australia, DSM IV, it describes perfectionism as a mental health disorder.

The concept of Zero harm only works in a perfect world and doesn’t allow workers to make any mistakes without facing massive consequences. The language of zero harm contradicts with the goal companies are aiming for to enable workers to speak up about safety issues and to feel more confident because zero is as mentioned before an absolute where failure is not acceptable. Therefore, workers are always afraid to do the wrong thing rather concentrate on what is right. We are seeing this kind of approach in our daily work in the field where workers get sacked because they didn’t operate in a zero-harm environment for various reasons. Yet the cycle of those incidents seems to continue no matter what companies are doing in trying to change and improve the situation.

Nobody connects the dots and concludes that the approach of zero-harm could be the reason why this fatal circle can’t be broken. Zero intolerances and the binary black and white thinking see the workers as the problem and therefore, the common practice is to sack people who are getting hurt. Another important fact is the very problematic issue with mental health and high suicide rates. A zero-harm approach won’t reach anyone who thinks about harming themselves.

This practice needs to stop. Only then safety will move to a higher level of improvement. We would argue that a person who got hurt at the workplace is by far the best safety ambassador you can get. So why sacking the safest person that works for you? Because you are operating with the zero-harm objective in mind and that’s why you cannot tolerate any failure to zero harm.

Absolutes may work in theory, but we must acknowledge that we don’t want anyone to apply absolutes on us. And here lies the major mistake when focusing on zero harm, the focus is only directed to systems and it is defined by theoretical parameters which allow people to operate only in very restricted ways. This kind of system controls and constrains people and demotivates them.

According to Dr. Green, the good news is that there are plenty of intelligent, innovative and collaborative capacities readily available to rise with the occasion. However, prevailing safety frameworks make very poor use of such abilities. In fact, from the current safety perspective, these abilities are mostly seen as a threat or a problem. That is why safety hasn’t evolved to the next level. When asked what people think about safety you get always the same answers. Safety is obstructive, it’s difficult, it’s bureaucratic, it’s driven by negative words.

We don’t know when or where safety became an issue filled with negative terms such as accidents, harm, fatalities, injuries, incidents, and disasters and in the same way we describe the precursors to these events in equally negative terms like dangerous hazards, violations, risks, slips, mistakes or lapses. None of this is safety this is all unsafety.

Is there another, a better way of looking at safety? A new safety approach that does not depend on the management of deficits which we know now doesn’t add anything to business performance because there is increasingly less to learn from, and the controlling environment creates distances and alienation between the organisation and the workforce over time.

Instead, let us consider a safety future that isn’t tied to incident rates and isn’t about the absence of accidents because the common belief is that safety is created based upon the absence of accidents. We know that this is not true because fatalities and serious injuries happen completely unexpected followed by long periods of accident-free operations, and it seems nothing could detect them.

To solve that problem, we need to have a common safety language, a standard language everyone is using. We need to encourage people to do the right thing and not to tell them what not to do. Here is an example of introducing positive language. Imagine two children in a tree hanging from a branch. One child is told “Don’t fall” at that moment the child falls because it was given an ambiguous message to AVOID something and right at that moment the child gets distracted. This is what we call outcome-focused language like the zero-harm approach. Now let us look to the second child still hanging in the tree. It is told to “Hold on”. It is given a CLEAR expectation. This is an action-focused approach and it creates a safer environment because it concentrates the focus on the exposure.

Now we can conclude what safety should be all about. Safety should be defined as Controlling And Reducing Exposure (CARE). Safety models as discussed earlier are only concentrating their focus on reactive issues. Those are the outcomes, things that already happened like fatalities, lost-time injuries and near misses.

We want to focus on the things that require a proactive approach. That means foremost, we must go out in the field and see what is going on there. We must observe, inspect and verify hazards and behaviours to identify all uncontrolled exposures happening in the workplace. Only then we know what is really going on and we can control risks. One important factor we forgot in the zero-harm debate is the people. We must develop a genuine interest in people. That starts with we must be aware that thousands of times every single day people who work for us successfully doing the right and safe thing, but we don’t acknowledge when they do that. In fact, we only display any interest when they screw up and in the worst case, we fire them.

So, the question should be how do we support people and show that we genuinely care about them?

We believe recognition and feedback are the way to establish and maintain a high-performance safety culture. The SmartCard system is a highly effective way of achieving this. The SmartCard system is designed to actively sustain a behavioural-based safety.

The other fundamental change needs to be done in the field. We have to go out there and observe, inspect and verify exposure regularly not only when accidents happen because in the aftermath of an accident how do you know that the things that you find when you investigate an accident aren’t happening all the time how do you know that if you’re not examining normal work if you’re not examining work when things go right? You have no right to suggest that the things you find when things go wrong are unique and require fixing. We should not wait for things to go wrong in the first place. Talking with workers openly especially about things that go well and asking the right questions that improve safety. Those questions can be for example:

Can you tell me what makes your work difficult? At what times do you have to struggle?

What changes have we made recently you have found of benefit?

What would you want people to know when writing procedures for this type of work?

When do you have a good day? When do you have a bad day?

If you had your own budget for safety improvement how would you spend it?

These kinds of dialogues make all the difference and build trust and drive out fear and that process is absolutely crucial for a successful safety strategy because we need to remember who the customers of our safety management systems are, they’re not the courts and not lawyers or shareholders.

The customers are the people who work for us every single day and we need to see them as part of the solution and not as the problem. The learning lesson is we should always choose to create trust over fear. As a result, safety will dramatically improve.

Don’t just engage your workforce, empower them because they are after all the true experts in their field.

All the suggested changes above should not mean getting rid of compliance. Compliance is necessary and often useful, but we should always remember: Safety is an ethical responsibility, not a bureaucratic necessary activity.