Book Review – For the Love of Zero

Book Review: For the Love of Zero – Human Fallibility and Risk


Author: Dr Robert Long  ISBN: 978-0-646-58765-3

by Martin Ralph

imageIn May of this year I was fortunate enough to chair, and present a keynote address to the Safety in Psychology conference in Sydney. This was potentially a tough assignment – IFAP is not well known in the eastern states, and I had little idea as to the level of “expertise” of the audience. But the conference also presented the opportunity for us to roll out the ETHOS concept IFAP has been working on for the past few years, and so the challenge was accepted.

As it eventuated, I should have been more open-minded about the conference. The audience was highly enthusiastic about the topic, and the collection of speakers was first rate. Somewhat shame-facedly the speakers included a few Australians who have built international reputations for excellence in thought leadership, but whom I was not aware of. Dr Robert Long was one of them, and I am awfully pleased that we met in Sydney and had the chance to share some lively and spirited discussions during the course of the conference.

Robert is the Executive Director of Human Dymensions Pty Ltd an Australian company that specialises in the development of organisations and people through a better understanding of human factors at work. He has lectured in a number of Australian universities, and currently is an Honorary Fellow in the School of Social Work at the Australian Catholic University (Queensland). His career includes Director of Youth, Community and Family Support services with the ACT Government, Risk Management Co-ordinator at the World Youth Day in Canberra, 2008 and roles in emergency management in both the 2003 Canberra bushfires, and 2006 Beaconsfield mining accident.

Robert set the conference alight with his keynote presentation, with many in the audience scratching their heads because of his concept that zero-level thinking (zero tolerance, zero accidents, zero harm, to name a few) portrays the hallmarks of a cult, which in turn can destroy a positive safety culture. He built his case so convincingly that by morning tea we had members of the audience vowing to pull apart their “zero” vision statements and to look at their safety culture improvement efforts from a different perspective.

Robert was good enough to give me a copy of all 3 of his books (the others being Risk Makes Sense: Human Judgement and Risk, and Real Risk: Human Discerning and Risk), and suggested that if I wanted to quickly come up to speed with his work, starting at For the Love of Zero (the second in the trilogy) would be the best place to start.

Robert states from the outset that by writing the book he is “running against the tide”, and likely to “not win any friends”. The “tide” is the “ever expanding popularity of the mantra of zero harm … that has spread like an epidemic in the last 10 years.” As he explains, the purpose of the book is to put forward new concerns about zero harm ideology, zero harm discourse and language and its effects on organizational culture and how people understand risk.

Throughout the book Robert introduces a number of psychological concepts and constructs critical arguments to succinctly build his case for a rethink on the zero harm movement. Two of the positions he espouses, the “binary opposition argument” and the “incongruity argument” are finely developed. He then combines these arguments with his upbringing in an evangelical fundamentalist home and his doctoral research into fundamentalism to mount the case that the language of zero, as it is applied in the safety space is both anti-learning and anti-community.

Powerful stuff indeed!

Robert peppers his writings with personal anecdotes, which makes the reading of the book more enjoyable than otherwise would have been if it were a “dry” academic treatment of the subject. The anecdotes also provide insights into how his positions have been formed and the lessons he is able to draw from them. If I have one criticism, it is that I started by reading the wrong book. For the Love of Zero is the second in the series, and it naturally follows on from the first. And so in my reading, on several occasions I asked myself “where does this argument have its basis”- the answer was invariably “in the first book, Risk Makes Sense”.

Many regular readers of SafetyWA would be staunch supporters of the “zero” philosophy. The purpose of Roberts’ book is not to disparage your efforts – rather it is ask you to shine a different light on what you are doing, and to question the principles upon which a zero mindset is based. In one of the workshop questions which append each chapter of the book, Robert asks the reader to “research a cult … and document the key characteristics of fundamentalism against their activities. Then compare this to the activities and language of zero harm ideology and see what you discover”. It is a terrific exercise – one that brings surprising results!

You have to source the book to find out what the key characteristics of fundamentalism are. If you do buy the book (which is strongly recommended) do yourself a favour – buy Risk Makes Sense too, and don’t fall for the trap I did.

Martin Ralph

Published by Scotoma Press, 10 Jens Place Kambah ACT, Australia 2902

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