Defending Zero-Injury Goals

Stop Worrying About Injuries: Defending Zero-Injury Goals

0, number from military fabric texture on white background.Ok I have been accused of being unfairly critical of zero harm goals and those who support them – guilty! But I would like to share this blog article by Phil LaDuke – only because Phil has managed to produce a well considered argument, not totally in support of fundamentalist zero harm goals, but perhaps what may be considered by some to be a good compromise for those who still can’t let go???.

Phil says: The idea that organizations should have a Zero-Injury goal is controversial; on one hand, Deming found such targets (for defects) destructive and counter productive. But yet if our goal isn’t zero then how many injuries are acceptable. The key is to stop focusing on injuries and start focusing on risk. In this week’s post I plunge into the issue. I hope you will give it a read and tell me what you think.

By Phil La Duke


Somewhere in the 500,000 or so words I’ve committed to print you will find me quoting Deming about the dangers of “zero-injury” goals.  I have been known to acknowledge the dubious value of the promotion of the pursuit of zero injuries—and I have even been an advocate of doing away with zero injury goals all together.  This week I had a conversation that changed my view of this topic considerably.  Let me begin by saying that I haven’t reversed my position completely.  For example I still believe:

  • The widespread confusion between the words “target” and “goal” creates serious and dangerous confusion in safety.
  • Telling workers that anything short of perfection is unacceptable is demoralizing and counter productive.
  • When “zero-injuries” becomes a slogan and a platitude it diminishes the perceived value of safety professionals.

So while I still believe organizations have to be very careful not to create a climate of fear that promotes under-reporting I now have a deeper insight into why zero-injury goals are important.

Traditional Ways of Measuring Safety are Deeply Flawed

Safety cannot be measured in terms of the absence of mangled bodies.  Yet, most of our injury statistics, the things that we gauge our performances against, are based on how many people we hurt (or didn’t hurt).  Let’s take something as simple as recordable incidents. If we had 15 last year and we only had 10 this year we saw a 33% improvement, right?  Not necessarily, in fact, maybe not in any likelihood.  Each injury is the result of a probability—there is some probability that workers will get hurt, in some cases workers beat the odds and other times they don’t, and when they don’t they get hurt.  Our traditional view of safety reporting is only accurate if the probability of injuries, the risk if you prefer, remains constant.

Going back to our example, if we had 15 injuries but had the opportunity of having 100 injuries our score, if you will, would be 15%.  So in 15% of the cases workers didn’t beat the odds and got hurt.  If in the second year, we had 10 injuries but had only 15 opportunities for being harmed our score would be 75%, far worse than the year before where our workers beat the odds 85% of the time versus the 25% of the time in the year that had less injuries. In this scenario, the traditional measures of safety would lead us to believe we are improving when in fact the safety of our workforce is deteriorating at an alarming rate.  This false sense that we are improving often will continue until someone is killed, leaving the organization scratching its head as they puzzle over what went wrong when it was doing so good. Of course the formula that turns raw incident figures into rates is an attempt to normalize the data, but it doesn’t work, not really anyway.

As blasphemous as it sounds, injuries tell us very little about the safety of our workplace.  We want zero injuries, period; not only is this a good goal, it’s the only acceptable goal.

It’s Not The Goal That Has To Change, It’s the Means We Use To Try and Get There

I’ve also written that if zero-injuries isn’t our goal, than what is? If we say that zero-injuries isn’t our goal then how many people are we allowed to kill and maim and still feel good about ourselves? While it is ridiculous to think that any company would openly and knowingly be satisfied killing any workers, this shift in thinking is relatively recent.  In the not so distant past, worker injuries and deaths were built into construction budgets, so while it may seem unconscionable that organizations would take such a blasé view of the death of someone’s loved one that is a recent shift away from the way society viewed worker safety.


Phil LaDuke

Phil LaDuke

Principle and Partner at ERM
Phil LaDuke
Phil La Duke is a principle and partner in Environmental Resources Management (ERM) a leading global provider of environmental, health, safety, risk, and social consulting services. With over 140 offices in 40 countries and nearly 6,000 top professionals, ERM can help you wherever you find yourself doing business. At ERM we are committed to providing a service that is consistent, professional, and of the highest quality to create value for our clients. Over the past five years we have worked for more than 50% of the Global Fortune 500 delivering innovative solutions for business and selected government clients helping them understand and manage the sustainability challenges that the world is increasingly facing. Phil works primarily in the Performance and Assurance practice at ERM; a speaker, author, consultant, trainer, provocateur…Phil La Duke wears many hats. As an expert in safety, training, organizational development, and culture change, Phil and ERM can help you motivate your workforce, conduct safety performance assessments, help you to build robust training infrastructures, craft interventions to improve how your work place values safety, provide insights to your executive staff, and craft and execute business solutions. If you’re interested in what Phil La Duke and ERM can do for you, or if you would like to inquire about employment opportunites at ERM, contact Phil at

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