Zero Harm

What’s the Issue with the language of Zero?

Leaders and researchers know that language and discourse are critical elements of cultural formation. The research (John Bargh) shows that how we “pitch” our message, “frame” our message and “prime” our audience are critical in shaping values and beliefs.

The language and discourse of “zero” is perhaps the most popular safety mantra in Australian organisations. Zero is actually more of a philosophical concept than a number.  Of course we know that zero isn’t really zero anyway, absolute zero (Zero Kelvin) is -273.15 degrees.  We also know that Zero Kelvin can’t be reached because of the quantum effects (entropy) exhibited when scientists get close to it.  The issue with the language of zero is how it “primes” the listener. It’s not immediately apparent but the language of zero is neither motivational nor inspirational. Indeed, any language of absolutes with humans is neither inspiring nor practical.

When one listens to the advocates of zero harm one realises that the commitment to the concept is profoundly religious in nature, the argument is always about “aspirational” goals and hope more than it is about the nature of humans, learning, culture and motivation.  This is despite the fact that everyone knows goals must be achievable if they are to make sense.  The language of zero breaks every rule in the text book on goal setting and motivation.

What is also bewildering is that most people using zero harm language speak so little of the notion of cultural discourse.  We should not enter this debate without having some understanding of how cultures omit or commit in language eg. in religious culture people know certain words exist but they chose not to acknowledge them because they know such words are antithetical to their culture.  In family culture there are certain things we don’t talk about because they don’t make sense to a person of a certain age or because the effect of the discourse may be misleading and dangerous.  We try to use language with our children which is encouraging, attainable and motivational, other unhelpful language we just don’t talk about.

The nonsense argument that if one doesn’t advocate zero harm one is setting “a little bit of harm” as a goal is illogical.  That is like saying if one doesn’t believe in god one must believe in satan. Or, if you don’t support the war in Afghanistan you support the Taliban. Argument from silence is a feeble way to support the use of zero language. The fact is this is not a discussion about quantity or numbers but philosophy, zero is a philosophical concept.

I’d rather we took the philosophical language of zero harm language out of the risk culture discourse, let’s just not talk about it.  It’s not helpful, its negatively focused and humanly unattainable.  Here are some more reasons why the language of zero harm is unhelpful, it:

•Drives reporting underground

•Has spawned a whole new language and data distortion for explaining away injury counting eg. IBNR – “Incurred But Not Reported”

•Is perceived as unrealistic and naive

•Generates scepticism and cynicism about safety

•Is based on a negative ethic/virtue of intolerance

•Takes the focus off big risks to small risks, which indeed could increase risk and diminish safety

•Stifles innovation and creativity

•“Primes” reactive rather than proactive counterfactual thinking

•Drives a punitive mindset

•Drives a non-learning climate

•Generates fear and anxiety

The philosophy and language of zero drives a culture of intolerance, since when did the concept of intolerance become a virtue or motivational?


Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
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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