Zero Harm - nothing is impossible or is it?

Zero Harm is a health & safety concept that is surrounded by controversy. On an idealistic level, it is an admirable goal that makes employee safety sacrosanct. However, critics of the approach argue that it is unrealistic and can result in more harm than good.

As well as weighing up the pros and cons of a Zero Harm approach, guest author Wayne Turner examines whether Zero Harm is achievable in reality. 

What are the pros and cons of Zero Harm in the workplace?

Pros:

  • Any initiative that promotes greater safety awareness in the workplace is positive as companies with very low rates of injury are safer places to work.  
  • It can create a culture in which people are valued as precious rather than treated as disposable commodities, and workers care for and look out for one another.
  • It is a powerful statement of intent that can help prioritise a company-wide focus on effectively managing health & safety risks. 
  • It focuses facilities management teams on investing in measures to reduce the risk of injury in the workplace. 
  • If an organisation can go 100 days, 1000 days, five years etc., without an accident that impacts morale - workers will feel proud and safe and will be motivated to maintain that performance.
  • Zero Harm is a simple message and concept that everyone can understand and communicate easily.

Cons:

  • Zero Harm has become a fashionable slogan for safety-centric branding and has been exploited by some organisations for short-term commercial gain. That has devalued the concept, and any business that adopts it as a goal needs to be sure they have the strategy and substance to back it up. 
  • American engineer W Edwards Deming once said: “whenever there is fear, you will get wrong figures”. Reporting is driven underground, reported figures are meaningless and there is no learning from near misses. A Zero Harm approach may discourage employees from reporting accidents, as they fear retribution. 
  • Employees are under undue pressure to perform their jobs guided by unrealistic expectations.
  • Declaring a ‘Zero’ target sets the workforce and the entire health & safety strategy up for failure. If accidents do occur, they can undermine and discredit the Zero Harm vision.

Is Zero Harm achievable? 

Organisations across the globe, including high profile names like EDF, Siemens and Balfour Beatty, have successfully driven down accidents using Zero Harm as a key corporate objective, proving that it can be done.

To establish whether Zero Harm is achievable, first, you need to decide what you are setting out to achieve: Zero deaths? Zero serious accidents? Zero injuries? 

There will always be some unavoidable injuries in the workplace - humans make mistakes, and bumps happen. However, it is a question of how bad an injury must be to be considered ‘harm’? Perhaps a sensible starting point is to include reportable illnesses and injuries. After all, the chances are that if an organisation has systems in place to prevent these more serious incidents from occurring, the risk of minor injuries will also be minimised. 

Another factor that has a significant bearing on whether or not Zero Harm can be achieved is the timeframe organisations set themselves. Zero Harm is not a quick fix and cannot be achieved overnight. Organisations need to set long-term (3-5 year) goals with regular monitoring. 

Zero Harm is most successful when used as a philosophical concept rather than a number. If the only measured target is ‘Zero harm’, sooner or later, that company is most likely going to fail. A better approach might be to celebrate the number of days that Zero Harm has been achieved. A company might say ‘x number of days in 2021 were recorded without an incident’, or ‘in 2021 we finished x% of days with zero harm’. The targets do not have to be absolute, particularly in the short term. 

Shared traits of organisations who succeed:

  • A clear road map monitored with measures of success and guided by a focus on serious hazards.
  • A culture where people are more important than production and controls are never removed or skipped to get the job done. 
  • There is an environment in which employees dare to speak up when they witness practices that do not meet the company’s safety standards, and there is a strong emphasis on learning from near misses.
  • A clear two-way connection, cooperation and communication between the function that sets targets (usually management) and the employees who are expected to apply the target at the site level.
  • Robust safety systems, policies, and procedures underpinned by supervision, auditing, and training. 
  • Visible recognition - when people are working towards the common safety goal and progress is made, this is acknowledged, praised and promoted. 
  • Executive buy-in - leaders who are committed, visible and ready to give feedback and intervene when things go wrong.
  • Employee buy-in - organisations who think creatively about how to sell their vision to the workforce and engage employees in the process from start to finish do better at Zero Harm. 
  • Quick intervention - on the rare occasion that a safety incident does occur, this is swiftly acted upon; leaders and employees jointly identify a solution or correction that prevents it from recurring. 
  • Communication - Zero Harm messaging is reinforced at every opportunity, through signage, equipment, PPE, documents and emails, and verbally in meetings and presentations. 
  • Safety is included as a KPI in employees’ performance evaluations. 

About Wayne Turner

Wayne Turner is a Chartered Member of the Institution of Safety and Health (CMIOSH) and MD of WT Consultancy, a young, vibrant business with a fresh approach to managing companies’ health & safety requirements cost-effectively. Our consultants and trainers have vast experience in many workplace sectors, from construction and engineering to food and farming. 

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