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Safeguard Magazine

Comment—Re-thinking zero harm

The concept of zero harm has gained much traction, but ALISON MOLLOY says its unintended consequences for workers calls for a re-think.

The concept of zero harm has garnered a lot of attention in New Zealand. The idea has been widely promoted and many organisations are now broadcasting this as a key part of their health and safety vision, some to great effect.

On the face of it, the concept of zero harm is admirable. A long-term vision for health and safety is important. The principles behind zero harm – a systemic risk-based approach, with clear leadership and expectations – are undoubtedly vital in creating safer workplaces. And if zero harm was actually achieved, it would be a great outcome for any organisation and for the culture of health and safety.

But there might also be unintended consequences in establishing such a policy.


First, let’s unpack the term. While it’s indisputable that no-one ever deserves to be hurt at work, the “zero” in zero harm inevitably implies a focus on lag indicators. Lag indicators are only one part of a comprehensive health and safety system and should not be regarded as an accurate gauge of health and safety performance.

Organisations which begin the journey to implement stronger health and safety processes and increase staff engagement in health and safety may in fact experience higher injury reporting rates.

The phrase zero harm may also send the wrong message to small businesses already struggling to adopt a basic health and safety system, making good health and safety seem a difficult if not impossible goal.


Another risk is that zero harm might mean completely different things to different parts of the business. To the board, for instance, zero harm may be a goal. But to workers on site, it could be seen as a policy discouraging them from reporting injuries. And while aiming for fewer injuries seems like a worthy goal, in an industry such as construction where speaking up has historically been difficult for workers, any initiative that might reduce reporting should be carefully considered.

Workers and subcontractors need to be central to any long-term health and safety goal, and a focus on zero harm risks the appearance of putting the board and health and safety experts at the centre of the vision, rather than those whom the vision was intended to serve.


Another concern is that companies will employ the concept of zero harm without putting in place the other vital health and safety performance measurements which they need to make their workplace safer. Without robust lead performance indicators, companies will not have the information they need to evaluate what led to zero harm – was it luck, misreporting, or was it something they achieved through their overall approach to health and safety?

We would also question if a focus on zero harm might lead organisations to spend too much resource on frequent, non-serious injuries, and less time spent on the risks which could cause a fatality or serious incident.


There will always be problems, mistakes and unforeseen circumstances in any organisation that can lead to incidents and injuries. A positive, non-blaming relationship and culture around incident reporting is essential for any company hoping to eliminate injuries by way of better understanding the causes of those incidents and then improving practice as a consequence.

If workers believe that reporting an injury is putting the company’s zero harm goal in doubt, there is a real risk that some may not report.


This is especially true for workers who might be new, hesitant, young or from other cultures. Recent research done in Australia indicates that migrant workers may already be under-reporting work injuries and may not be aware of their rights in relation to workplace health and safety. When workers make mistakes or bow to pressure to take short cuts, and then suffer injuries, it is likely that some will fail to report the incident. And when workers don’t speak up, the company loses its greatest health and safety asset.

Site Safe believes the goal organisations should be aiming for is that of achieving a safe working environment. As well as leading to a focus on measuring health and safety initiatives, this shifts the focus from counting injuries to creating an environment where reporting is encouraged, and the entire organisation is working towards the shared goal of a safe workplace.

Alison Molloy is chief executive of Site Safe New Zealand.

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