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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

Comment—Zero harm challenged

In recent years there has been much talk of achieving “zero harm”, but BLAKE KYLE says it can be detrimental when interpreted as a policy rather than as a goal.

In 2010, the Business Leaders’ Health and Safety Forum launched its “Zero Harm in Workplaces Strategy”. Their vision is for all business leaders to passionately commit to zero harm.

Yes, everyone should strive to achieve zero harm. However, formalising this as a company goal or mission can have some unintended consequences that need careful consideration. If you achieve “zero harm” over a period, will you ever get to “zero incidents”? Even in a good safety culture, there will always be problems that you need to identify and solve.

What could the ripple effect of a zero harm goal be throughout your organisation, and is the result good or bad? From my perspective, the two greatest potential risks to your organisation from a zero harm approach are:

  • • 
    If “zero harm” is used as a safety performance measure, it is simply measuring luck.
  • • 
    If “zero harm” in any way discourages reporting, then you are missing out on one of the greatest ways to improve your actual safety performance.

If you are measuring the number of injuries to show your safety performance (LTIs, for example) you are basing your measure on luck. This is because you are only measuring the tip of the iceberg. How many unsafe acts, incidents and near misses take place in your business for every minor or serious harm injury? If you only measure injuries you will never know.

So if you achieve zero harm, is it because of good management? Or is it good luck that stopped a near miss from becoming “harm”? If you say “we did a great job this year, we had no injuries”, can you also say “we had no unsafe acts or near misses”? Until you can say that it is only luck that is stopping the injuries.

A positive reporting culture is essential to improving safety performance. However, it takes considerable effort for an organisation to develop. In many companies it is hard enough to get workers to report minor injuries, let alone hazards and near miss incidents. Also, when they are reported there can be an unintentional perception of blame placed on a worker which will often result in the covering up of mistakes.

Many companies and sites unintentionally emphasise productivity over safety, and this puts pressure on workers to take risks. In this environment, if something is knowingly done that is unsafe, if someone makes a mistake or if there is a near miss incident, it will likely never be reported and the root cause of it will never be known or solved.

A “zero harm” policy perception will only add to a problem or culture of under-reporting. What worker would want to report an injury in this environment, and break the time since the last injury, especially if it has been tens or hundreds of thousands of hours since the last one? Imagine the pressure on the injured worker in this scenario, and the risk that the injured worker will be blamed, bullied or otherwise singled out for being injured.

In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is officially discouraging injury-based incentive programmes because research shows that workers and managers are reluctant to report injuries where they may lose bonuses or face peer pressure from others whose prizes are also threatened.

Safety performance measures should be based on what drives high level safety performance, for example Key Performance Indicators that measure onsite behaviours, specific safety activities or management’s involvement in them.

On the surface, “zero harm” appears a worthy goal. However, what do people generally think when they hear a company state “we want to achieve zero harm”? The problem comes when it is perceived (or interpreted) more as a policy than a goal. To recognise the difference, consider whether zero harm means the same thing in the board room that it does to workers on site operating in the existing safety culture.

A mission of achieving a “safe working environment” (for example) will never send mixed signals about your expectations, and will never put pressure on someone to cover things up. It will enable the definition of Key Performance Indicators that help to develop a positive hazard, near miss, and incident reporting culture.

A “safe working environment” mission will give you the best opportunity to improve your safety performance, and make zero harm a much more likely outcome.

BLAKE KYLE is a senior safety consultant with Site Safe NZ.

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