The Immediacy of Zero
One of the problems of zero ideology is not just its fixation on counting but the way the psychology of numerics and lower order goal-setting puts the focus on short-sightedness. As long as we get zero today, it doesn’t matter what eventuates in 20 years time, that’s someone else’s counting problem. This ends up creating a culture of immediacy in the safety industry that worries more about people in uniform (wearing PPE) than the long-term by-products and trade-offs caused by immature ideologies.
A story was published this week about the long-term effects and escalation of silicosis in Australia (The biggest lung disease crisis since asbestos: Our love of stone kitchen benchtops is killing workers). The article calls it ‘the worst occupational lung disease crisis since the peak of the asbestos disaster.’
People in the construction industry have known about this for years and not just with ‘engineered stone’. The use of cutting devices in general on a host of fabricated products produces amazing levels of dust in confined spaces. But if no-one gets a cut, then no harm has been done. This is the zero mentalitie.
I have been walking the job for the past few weeks for one of my building and construction clients with a focus on conversation, leadership, questioning and building relationships. As a part of my walk-arounds it is clear that all kinds of dust is accepted as part of working in the industry. On one job a concrete pour had been interrupted by rain and the next day the concrete had to be ground down whilst prep for the next deck was being undertaken. I walked into many places where there was simply no visibility for the dust from a variety of cutting and grinding. Stopping the job would be considered crazy just as much as issuing breathing apparatus for 100 steelfixers, stressors, formworkers, plumbers and concreters.
Of course, the statistics for the various sites I went to was zero. Zero doesn’t count mental health, bullying or longitudinal factors like silicosis in its ideological assumptions. Goodness me, anything that prevents us from getting to zero must be pushed elsewhere. This is the psychology of zero ideology and numeric discourse.
One doctor in the ABC Report stated that he expected over 300 cases of silicosis this year in Queensland alone, the zero harm state. (The regulator in Queensland has been spruiking this ideology for a decade https://www.worksafe.qld.gov.au/construction/articles/zero-harm-at-work-leadership-program). The report estimates those harmed by silicosis number in the thousands.
Where do all these numbers go? When the SIA and other groups like regulators (https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/doc/south-australia-zero-harm-project) sign on to this ideology they are seduced into the immediacy of zero thinking and the attraction of numerics. The psychology of lower-order goal setting (https://safetyrisk.net/?s=Goals ) is the foundation of zero ideology. When lower-order goal setting takes over long-term goal setting, higher-order goals disappear. This is evidenced in the way zero harm organisations count. What’s the injury rate for this month? That’s the question.
One thing is for sure, if you keep talking nonsense language to fallible people (https://www.humandymensions.com/product/fallibility-risk-living-uncertainty/) you set the collective unconscious to immediacy not long-term trajectory. This is the vice of zero.
Rob Long says
Thanks Lester. Very few understand the pervasive nature of language. Goebells did and used it well to shape a generation. Language is the key to propaganda and the effectiveness of selling lies as truth. We are not fallible, zero is possible, that’s the message. And safety believes it. It would be naive to expect that such a message would have no effect!
Thanks for sharing this Rob. I’ve always been very particular with dust generation in civil construction projects and have continuously advocated controlling them at its source, either through the use of dust guarding systems attached to a vacuum cleaner, or the water line attachments, etc. I always consider Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS) in general is the most overlooked hazard in most construction sites. You’re right, management would think that since there are no visible injuries then there’s nothing to worry about. Well, the operatives are trained to do their jobs well so they are expected to keep themselves safe. Zero harm must be maintained. Tsk. Anyway, my point is I thought this problem is only confined in construction sites here in the Middle East. Correct me if I’m wrong but I would never have known its prevalence in Australia. Again, thanks for sharing.
Rob Long says
Hi Charles, thanks for your response and yes I think those elements are also factors in the shortsightedness that dominates the industry. Zero is a discourse, language and ideology and so is not a ‘journey’ nor juust a target, certainly not a goal and most definitely a vice.
Bernard Corden says
The Friedman Doctrine on corporate $ocial re$pon$ibility i$ reinforced by many zeroe$
Rob, there is perhaps a circularity to this in that the short sightedness of management focussed as it is on the purpose of business to be business and therefore profitability and short term share price makes quick fix solutions look attractive. So instead of considering the impossibility of achieving zero they look at what others are doing and agree with the “logic” that if you don’t want zero harms how many is acceptable? Then the focus goes onto securing agreement with what is known to be impossible and if you don’t agree then there must be something wrong with you for not joining in, after a while though what is admitted is that the goal of zero is impossible but it is worth the journey. It would be better, I would offer, to consider that perfection cannot be obtained but improvement is possible, continually. You may never get to the zero but the variation around the goal is ultimately so little as to be not worth the trouble of measuring.