Thinking About Harm

Thinking About Harm

Young engineer with pensive face and security helmet A new perspective on the concept of harm with 10 tips at the end that should help bring some sense back into the engagement with risk.

Quote: So, what zero harm really means is selective reporting on definitions of harm the company counts. If we eliminate the definitions of harm we don’t like, we can achieve zero harm quite easily. Simply ignore the harms you don’t like such as social and psychological harms, because they are hard to see, and bingo – zero harm.

The idea of harm is most associated with loss, when someone is harmed usually something is lost from human: identity, well being, wholeness, healthy, physical capacity or relationship. People can be harmed psychologically, socially, physically, economically and mentally. I’m sure you can also think of other ways in which people can be harmed. People can be harmed by other humans, processes, systems, the environment or by self. So when one sets a goal for zero harm, one is setting a perfectionist goal for no loss to any aspect of human being.

Unfortunately, from the day of birth, the process of entropy ensures the ongoing loss of capacity for all humans until the moment of death. The cycle of life is one of growth and decay. The idea that one can reverse the aging process is delusional indeed, humans suffer harm each day, that is, something is being lost through entropy each minute. Life is about learning, the aging process confirms what it means to be human and fallible. It seems everyday that a research report confirms that: peanut butter is harmful, lack of sleep is harmful, the internet is harmful, vaccinations are harmful, worry is harmful and drinking alcohol is harmful. There seems to be a side effect for every activity we engage in. I read a report today that indicated that technological devices in cars were harmful because they are a distraction and another report that stated that phone electronics was harmful. It seems that living is harmful.

Of course, those who propose perfectionist goals don’t really think that all harm will be zero. What zero harm really means is selective harm, a focus on a narrow definition of harm. Tier one companies that espouse zero harm can’t possibly stop fly-in fly-out practices, despite the extensive evidence that shows it is very harmful. We aren’t about to give up alcohol and eating meat because they are harmful, we have already made a trade of in pleasure for those things. We are not likely to stem the exponential flow of mental health suffered because of modern living. The harm caused by social media and the epidemic of loneliness is hardly going to decrease. Bullying, whilst harmful, stands at odds with the idea of competition and survival of the fittest. Until we can eradicate human insecurity, envy, jealousy, intolerance, violence and host of vices in the make up of human being, it is unlikely that no one will be unharmed in the near future. So, what zero harm really means is selective reporting on definitions of harm the company counts. If we eliminate the definitions of harm we don’t like, we can achieve zero harm quite easily. Simply ignore the harms you don’t like such as social and psychological harms, because they are hard to see, and bingo – zero harm.

When one understands the selectivity of the zero harm ideology, then one knows it doesn’t make sense of risk. Unfortunately, the ideology of zero is both anti-human and anti-learning because it seeks to measure success by what it doesn’t achieve, absolutes. Rather than motivate people by what is created, zero harm has it’s focus on what is not created. Instead, the ideology makes proponents juggle it’s illogical claims every time harm exists. It makes it hard to discern risk when the ideology one is wedded to selectively frames risk and seeks a blinkered view of human identity. The endless denial of fallibility in goal setting is quickly undone the next time we lose concentration.

When one understands the secrets of motivation and ownership, then one knows that purpose effectiveness, control effectiveness and truth effectiveness are essential to making sense of risk. Zero harm by its ideological failure robs humans of effectiveness in meaning/purpose, control and truth.

So, if zero doesn’t make sense then what does? The following 10 tips should help bring some sense back into the engagement with risk:

1. Humanising the way we talk about risk.

2. Understanding trade offs in risk.

3. Maintaining dialogue and conversations that avoid the language of blame.

4. Practice empathy, knowing that ‘there but for the grace of god, go I’.

5. Setting positive achievable goals for improvement.

6. Understanding safety maturity as a journey rather than a destination.

7. Avoiding projections on others failures and mistakes.

8. Seeking to make learning a priority over punishment. Learning how to learn.

9. Being tactically silent about perfectionist and absolutist language and about how success in managing risk is quantified.

10. Having a holistic focus on harm especially in psychosocial, socialpsychological and a relational way.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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