Whether you have a zero harm policy or not, this divisive topic may not be the most important thing to focus on when it comes to creating safer outcomes at work. Here’s why.

The rise of zero harm policy implementation over the past 20 years has had a polarising effect on workplaces. Often those who don’t subscribe to a zero harm policy are treated with contempt, as if a policy alone can ensure the safety of workers everywhere.

For those living in Victoria, Australia, the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) has a Towards Zero vision, acknowledging that it’s unlikely if not impossible to aim for zero fatalities and injuries when it comes to human behaviour on our roads, but we should at least try.

We think the same can be said of workplaces. While it’s a commendable goal – to achieve zero incidents at work – there are other more beneficial things we can invest our resources towards to minimise potential harm and risk to people.

Since zero harm policies first appeared in the 1990s, we’ve seen organisations invest time and money into branding zero harm safety programs for the workplace, keeping in step with the echo chamber of other like-minded companies in their industry, when these resources might have been directed elsewhere.

Yet zero isn’t a rational goal. As soon as people turn up to work, there’s always a chance someone might trip over the front door. No matter how hard you work and how “good” you are at safety, every organisation, at some point, will have an accident. As Drew Rae says, believing in Zero Harm just show people that you don’t understand maths.

While having a zero harm policy is not in and of itself a bad thing, we are wary of the baggage that comes with implementing an industry-focused policy, particularly around branding, at the cost of creating more targeted, positive and action orientated messaging for safety within organisations.

There are wildly different schools of thought on this topic, which emerged in the 1990s when organisations like DuPont began to assert that all accidents are preventable. Since then a growing rift has emerged between two very different camps of safety thinking.

Here though, I’d like to present some of the arguments for and against the idea of a zero harm policy – acknowledging from the start that both parties care about the safety of their workers. This, at least, is a given and some clear common ground from which to start the debate.

Is adopting a Zero Harm policy a good idea?

At Forge Works, we’ve worked in organisations that both have and have not implemented a Zero Harm policy. We’re as aware of those who are anti-zero harm policies and the philosophies driving their arguments, as those who support the approach.

There are positives and negatives to both sides of the argument.

Throughout the 1980’s safety science researchers (e.g. Sagan, Perrow, Rasmussen) were suggesting that accidents were normal outcomes of work, with the potential to increase in frequency due to the increasing complexity of our social and technological systems.

The idea of “zero harm” came from the industrial backlash to this idea in the 1990’s and proclaims that every individual accident is both unacceptable and indeed preventable. That we shouldn’t accept injuries and fatalities as part of work, that it’s unethical. If we accept them, we’re not doing our best.

Whereas, zero harm opponents believe work is risky and people are imperfect, so it’s best to focus on improving safety to improve the potential for successful outcomes over time, as eradicating danger is impossible and an act of folly.

Release the hounds now.

Yet what really matters when it comes to safety isn’t actually the number of accidents. When we talk about improving safety, we’re talking about reducing the amount of risk at work.

You can eliminate the risk of working at heights by not working at heights. You can eliminate the risk of asbestosis by not using asbestos. But unless you’re not going to go to work, you can’t eliminate all risks at work.

From a mathematical perspective, no workplace will ever reach zero. But our practical question isn’t (and never will be) does zero harm make sense? Instead, we’re interested in knowing if a zero harm policy makes an organisation safer or less safe.

Is Zero Harm a target or an aspiration?

There are two ways of interpreting a zero harm policy. The people who think that the zero-harm policy is an aspiration say “we know we will never get there but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try”. Others say, “Yes! We legitimately think it’s a target and we can reach zero.”

In our podcast The Safety of WorkEpisode 12, we discussed three different perspectives on the topic of zero harm. These authors represent the entire published academic literature on zero harm. They cover all approaches – for, against and in between.

According to Professor Gerard Zwetsloot based in the Netherlands, those who see zero harm as an aspiration argue that it’s a strategy of commitment. It enables companies to score higher when asked to assess whether management holds safety as a priority.

While having a policy doesn’t mean that workers will change their behaviour, it does promote the idea of senior management being committed to safety – at least, from the outside. Some believe this commitment can trickle down and help to change culture which will in turn get other decisions made to improve safety.

The trouble with adopting a zero harm policy as an aspiration or to demonstrate a commitment to safety, is that it needs to be accompanied by clear expectations so managers and workers know what needs to be achieved and how. This is a criticism of the zero harm policy as an aspiration.

But many companies do go a step beyond this aspiration and make zero harm a target. Some set specific timelines and very clear markers around what is success. The problem here is that these goals can be corrupted within organisations – because the board and senior management can fail to be clear on their actual expectations.

People at lower levels form their own perceptions around what is meant by zero harm, while it may be set as an aspiration by senior management, others in the organisation interpret it as don’t have any accidents. So, any messaging around zero harm always needs to be super clear.

From what we’ve seen, this is never the case. More often organisations self-assess their success of zero harm programs, noting that they might have had fewer injuries or that they’ve increased their safety culture score, but rarely, if ever evaluate the physical risk position of their workplaces.

What are the side effects of focusing on Zero Harm?

Some other leading safety theorists, like Professor Sidney Dekker who founded the Safety Science Innovation Lab at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, are quite specific when it comes to listing the negative side effects associated with committing to a zero harm policy.

Dekker argues that these side effects, all of which will be currently occurring in an organisation that has adopted zero harm, include:

1.    If you adopt zero harm you will focus on minor accidents at the expense of major accident risks because they’re the easiest ones to count and to drive the number down towards zero.

2.    You’ll have distorted reporting that doesn’t represent the real state of work or risk in your business because you’re trying to reach a target of zero – just having a zero target is going to result in hiding results at work because organisations have committed to the illusion that zero is possible.

3.    Having an unrealistic policy about safety and work as done, means you’re going to have cynicism and disengagement at work. If management pretends that zero is possible and workers know that it’s not, then the gap between management and workers will widen.

At Forge Works we know these side effects to be true, anecdotally at least, and we would argue that more evidence is needed to fully resolve the debate around the merits of Zero Harm, particularly when it comes to organisations proving their commitment to safety and safer outcomes.

Too often zero harm policies remain as just big-branded safety programs that tie workers up in marketing collateral and result in little concrete improvement when it comes to changing how people work.

What are our practical takeaways?

If you’re in an organisation that has a zero harm policy, our suggestion is don’t fight it, unless you are up for a real challenge – instead, find out how it’s interpreted by the workforce and used or not used to drive strategic and operational action. Focus on eliminating hazards not driving down numbers. Be very clear about what the company wants management to do, and what management wants workers to do.

Practical improvements for ‘the safety of work’ should include: increasing departmental safety budgets, lowering production targets to remove goal conflict, reviewing critical risks at all individual sites, investing in higher-order engineering and elimination risk control measures.

Then, the fact that there’s a zero harm policy in the background driving all this activity is probably not going to be much of an issue in relation to work (just something for us safety professionals to continuously debate). Try not to focus on the branding – rather tune into the practical actions. Make sure management knows what it wants to change, and how they will do it!

If you don’t like the idea of zero harm, focus on tacking the specific problems it causes that I’ve mentioned above. Even if we can’t all agree on whether we like it or not, hopefully we can agree, for example, that focusing on minor accidents at the expense of major risks is something best avoided.

It’s our hope that we can also agree that discouraging the reporting of bad news is a bad thing in the workplace, that we need to be careful when we’re running safety campaigns because they can accidentally seem a bit silly and cause disengagement.

If you’re in an organisation that hasn’t adopted zero harm, it’s probably best to take a different path with your safety aspiration and messaging – focus on what that you want to create rather than what you want to avoid.

I bet you never hear of an organisation setting their business strategy and target as “don’t go broke”. Instead their business strategy is full of all the positive goals that they’re going to achieve instead.