Latest by WHS Lawyer Greg Smith and co-author of Risky Conversations, The Law, Social Psychology and Risk.
What we say matters: Zero and other Aspirations – First Published Here
It seems hardly a day goes by without social media raising a new discussion about the merits or otherwise of “Zero Harm”.
As I understand the various arguments “for” and “against”, there seemed to be three broad categories of argument (although I do not discount further or additional arguments).
One argument says that Zero Harm is not a target, or a goal, rather it is an aspiration – something to pursue. If I may be so bold as to paraphrase Prof Andrew Hopkins, it is like a state of grace – something to be striven for, but never truly achieved.
Another argument, more of a middle ground, articulates that Zero Harm is “okay”, but may have an unintended consequence of driving adverse behaviour. In particular, it is argued that Zero Harm causes individuals and organisations to hide incidents or manipulate injury data in support of an organisation’s “zero” targets.
Yet another argument says that the language of zero is totally corrosive and destructive. It argues the language of zero – amongst other things – primes a discourse that is anti-learning and anti-community (See, For the Love of Zero by Dr Robert Long).
I would like to use this article to discuss two matters. First, the Safety Paradox in the context of aspirational statements, only using “zero” as a starting example. Second, to demonstrate how aspirational statements can be used against organisations. Both these points are closely related but ultimately, I want to argue whatever your “aspirations” you need to have “assurance” about the effect they have on your business.
The Safety Paradox is a concept I have been exploring for some time now. The Safety Paradox supposes that our safety initiatives have within them the potential to improve safety and cause harm.
In my view, the single biggest weakness in modern safety management is the assumption that safety management initiatives are “good“. I have no doubt that the proponents of Zero Harm suffer from this assumption.
The question of whether Zero Harm is good or bad is, on one view, totally irrelevant. If you are a Zero Harm organisation the only thing that really matters is the impact Zero Harm has in your workplace.
- What is the purpose of Zero Harm in your organisation?
- How do you demonstrate that Zero Harm achieves this purpose?
- How do you evidence that Zero Harm does not undermine safety in the way that many commentators suggest?
My personal experience with Zero Harm means that I remain unconvinced of its benefits, but I do not feel I am closed to being persuaded otherwise, it is just that I have never worked with an organisation that has been able to address the three questions proposed above. Moreover, in my experience, there is usually a significant disconnect between corporate intentions and operational reality: What management think is going on is often very different from what the workforce believes.
Considering all the published criticism of Zero Harm as a concept, I do not think it is unfair that the onus should be on Zero Harm organisations – including government regulators – to demonstrate that Zero Harm achieves its intended purpose and does not have a negative impact on safety.
Now, this is more than a matter of semantics. Aspirational statements can, and are used against individuals and organisations.
On 21 August 2009 and uncontrolled release of hydrocarbons occurred on the West Atlas drilling rig operating off the North-West coast of Australia. The incident reawakened the Australian Public to the dangers of offshore oil and gas production, leading to a Commission of Inquiry into the event.
During the Commission the aspirational statements of one organisation was used against an individual. The criticism was that a contractor had removed a piece of safety critical hardware, but not replaced it, and had not been directed by the relevant individual to replace it.
There was some discussion about a presentation provided by the organisation, and that resulted in the following exchange.
Q: All right. If the operator could go to page 0004 of this document, that overhead, which is part of the induction training of drilling supervisors, is entitled “Standards”. Do you see that?
Q: If you could read what is said there, you would agree it captures, if you like, a profound truth?
Q: Do you agree that that is a truth not simply applicable to drilling supervisors but also applicable to PTT management onshore?
Q: I want to suggest to you, sir, that your decision not to instruct Mr O’Shea or Mr Wishart to reinstall the 9-5/8″ PCC represents a very significant departure from what is described on that screen.
A: Yes, I can concede that.
Q: Without wishing to labour the point, your decision not to insist upon the reinstallation of the 9-5/8″ PCC was a failure in both leadership and management on your part?
A: Yes, that’s what it seems now.
Q: With respect, sir, I’m suggesting to you that, faced with the circumstances you were, your deference, as it were, to not treading on the toes of the rig personnel and insisting on the reinstallation was, at that point in time, a failure in leadership and management on your part.
A: I will accept that.
How many of these untested platitudes infect organisations, waiting for the opportunity to expose the business to ridicule and criticism?
Or consider if you will, the following scenario. An employee is dismissed for breaching mobile phone requirements when his mobile phone was found in the cabin of the truck he had been operating.
The employee bought an unfair dismissal claim and the presiding tribunal found that there was a valid reason to terminate his employment. However, the tribunal also found that the termination was unfair for several procedural reasons. In part, the tribunal relied on the level of training and information that the employee had been provided about the relevant procedure.
The training documentation provided did not clearly demonstrate that employees were trained in this new procedure and signed accordingly, or that it was given a significant roll-out to employees commensurate with their ‘zero tolerance’ attitude to incidents of breaches, given how this case has been pursued (my emphasis added).
If you are going to have a “Zero” aspiration, that has to be reflected in your business practices. It seldom is.
What I think these examples illustrate is an inherent weakness in the way health and safety is managed. We, as an industry, are overwhelmingly concerned with “how” we manage health and safety risks without paying anything like enough attention to whether the “how” works.
Do all of our aspirations and activities actually manage health and safety risks, or are we just keep keeping people busy or worse, wasting their time? As importantly, how do we know our initiatives are not part of the problem?
BP’s corporate management mandated numerous initiatives that applied to the U.S. refineries and that, while well-intentioned, have overloaded personnel at BP’s U.S. refineries. This “initiative overload” may have undermined process safety performance at the U.S. refineries. (The Report of the BP US Refineries Independent Safety Review Panel (Baker Panel Review), page xii).
There is no doubt that safety is not the only management discipline that suffers from these deficiencies: “style over substance” and “window dressing”. But if we claim the high moral ground of protecting human health and life, then perhaps the onus on us to show what we do works, is also higher.