THE ZERO HARM DEBATE – Zero is Possible but Nothing Is Impossible????

Headline: “83% of Fortune 500 Companies Vow to Drop Failed Zero Harm Policies”

Sighhhh….. I’m only dreaming. But I am interested in what made you click on the link to this page? Fear?, Anger?, Hope?, Disbelief?.

There was promising news during the week that GM was dropping its reliance on safety metrics however its seems that they are just replacing one quantitative measure with another  (see General Motors Stops Using Safety Metrics).

I heard some positive talk from a high profile company risk manager this week when they told me that they were busy undoing all of the damage done previously by their expensive DuPont system and their zero harm policy – he referred to their employees as being “totally blinkered by Zero Harm”.

Does anyone have any good examples of zero being dropped and the success of that initiative?

Free Download: Understanding Extremism and Fundamentalisms: For The Love of Zero Ch6


No other concept in safety has ever caused more divide, debate and long term damage to safety than that of zero harm. Here are a few resources to help you decide whether this is a positive concept or if in fact it is detrimental to short and long term safety improvement. Unfortunately we have fallen a little short of positive articles and supporting stories – if you have any please send them in…………. . The best that the proponents can come up with so far is that “its just an aspirational goal” or “oh so how many people are you planning to hurt?” (see How Many Do You Want Harmed Today?)

I just read an interesting paper by Gollwitzer ( ) where he says: “Goal attainment is also more likely when people frame their good intentions as learning goals (to learn how to perform a given task) rather than performance goals (to find out through task performance how capable one is; Dweck, 1996) or when they frame their intentions as promotion goals (focusing on the presence or absence of positive outcomes) rather than prevention goals (focusing on the presence or absence of negative outcomes; Higgins, 1997).”

So how is zero harm a learning or promotion goal? Seems more like a negative performance goal to me?

In a perfect world things don’t go bump and wheels don’t fall off, humans don’t make mistakes and people don’t suffer – but we don’t live in a perfect world. No amount of denial of human fallibility makes it so. We have hospitals, morgues and cemeteries that remind us that human life is not only finite but that suffering and risk test your attitude to learning. In the midst of human reality there are proponents claiming that ‘all accidents are preventable’ and advocating ‘zero harm’. Some organisations even reward employees for meeting ‘zero’ goals and thereby ‘prime’ workers to hide, deny and under-report harm.

Recent Zero Harm Quotes:

  • Strange, one requires no qualification to blindly follow an ideology one doesn’t understand and yet, needs all the qualifications in the world to question it? This is the nature of dogma and ideology. Dr Rob Long HERE
  • if we accept that there is no such thing as ‘zero risk’ then we should not spin the meaning of words with assertions such as ‘all accidents are preventable’. Dr Rob Long – HERE
  • We make thousands of decisions everyday in automatic mode without a mistake. Yet we don’t reflect and celebrate this wonderful mode of human decision making at work rather, we put the blow torch on the one moment when it doesn’t work and something goes wrong. – Dr Rob Long
  • “Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force” – W. Edwards Deming
  • “Do I believe in the concept of Zero Harm? Let’s just say I believe that nothing is impossible” – Dave Collins
  • “Anyone who loves the concept of Zero Harm obviously has nothing to love” – Dave Collins
  • “Measuring Safety Performance by the number of injuries you have is like measuring parenting by the number of smacks you give” – Dr Robert Long
  • “Telling me to be careful is very different to saving my life” – Phil LaDuke
  • “Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for massive inspection by building quality into the product in the first place.” – W. Edwards Deming
  • “Whenever there is fear, you will get wrong figures”. – W. Edwards Deming
  • “Zero Harm” is a “do not” target. “Do” targets are possible, while “do not” is often impossible. The focus should be on aspects like “the best available and reasonable safety practices”, or “improved measures” or “better hazard/ risk identification.” These are things that can be done. If you tell me “do not get injured”, I am going to ask you “How will I not get injured?” What will your answer be? (If you do have an answer, I bet it will probably be a list of things I should DO.) – Wynand Serfontein – 2014
  • “What a strange sense of logic to fixate on the absence of something (injury) as a demonstration of the presence of something else (safety). Such a proposition misunderstands the dynamic of risk and being human.” – Dr Robert Long – 2014
  • Quote from Weick. Managing the Unexpected p. 67. ‘Nowhere in this book will you find any mention of perfection, zero errors, flawless performance, or infallible humans. That’s because human fallibility is like gravity, weather, and terrain, just another foreseeable hazard. Error is pervasive. The unexpected is pervasive. By now that message should be clear. What is not pervasive are well-developed skills to detect and contain these errors at their early stages’
  • When planning your next family holiday would you get “Zero Harm” T-shirts printed for all the kids and tell them that the main aim of the holiday is not to get hurt? – Dave Collins
  • Would your loved ones prefer to be told: “I will never hurt you” OR “I will always love you”? Dave Collins
  • “If safety is zero harm then love must just be zero hate” – Dave Collins

The Positives of Zero Harm – more positive articles and stories desperately needed!

Depositphotos_32115919_xs_thumb.jpgDefending Zero-Injury Goals

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???.

ZERO Injuries – Making it Happen

ZERO Injuries – Making it Happen Guest Post By John Wettstein   ZERO injuries – is it possible? The key is that in order to achieve something you must first believe it is possible to do. You have to focus on the ultimate outcome and allow your organization a way to achieve it. Remember that as soon as Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile people thought it was possible. If safety goals are not set at ZERO, an employer sends a message to employees that severe and disabling

The Negatives of Zero Harm

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.

Zero Harm

One of the original posts by the late George Robotham Many companies in Australia will proudly tell you they have a Zero Harm approach to OHS. My understanding, from admittedly not widespread research, is that Zero Harm approaches are not widespread in other countries. I am told the Canadians tried it and abandoned it. A small number of companies in Australia have been doing Zero Harm for many years but it appears to have been discovered by a larger number of organisations Read the whole article here

The Madness Of Measuring Nothing

cg_measuring-cup.gifIn a business climate where every company seems to live and die by its metrics one important business element is often over looked, or worse yet is misleading business leaders. Safety has been poorly measured for almost 100 years, and in this week’s post I offer better ways to measure worker safety. I hope you will give it a read and tell me what you think.

Thinking About Harm

Depositphotos_9428687_xs_thumb.jpg –  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 Read the whole article here

Forget Injuries—They Have Nothing to Do With Safety

A while back I presented The Seventh Value at an international safety conference and after my talk a member of the audience challenged my assertion that the absence of injuries does not denote the presence of safety. Last week I posted an article defending Zero-Injury goals that sparked debate that is still going hot and heavy.

Zero Harm and A Peasant in 16th Century Europe

imageJust came across this one from a few years ago, luvved it and felt it should get some more air. Zero Harm and a peasant in 16th century Europe Guest article by Paul Nieuwoudt Life today appears to hold some similarity to that of 16th century Europe. Europe in those days was largely dominated by the Roman Catholic church and many governments dared not make any decisions of any significance without the church’s permission. Those governments had cardinals, appointed by the church as their advisors Read the whole article here

Binary Opposites and Safety Goal Strategy

imageLatest article by Dr Robert Long about the absurdity of the Zero Harm philosophy!  If you liked this article then you should read the whole series: CLICK HERE. I highly recommend you check out Rob’s new book “RISK MAKES SENSE” Quote from the article: The denial of the zero goal is not an assertion that I welcomes injuries. I do not accept accidents but don’t talk in the nonsense of zero. Yet, those who commit to zero in binary opposition thinking, then have to carry on with the most absurd Read the whole article here

Zero Incident Goals Motivate Risk-Taking

Just came across the interesting article by Shawn M. Galloway. Shaun makes a good point when he says that in organisations that promote zero harm as being safety excellence then anything an employee does and isn’t harmed is probably automatically assumed to be excellence??? – a very tenuous and unsustainable condition to be in! Complacency then sets in, caused by a false sense of security and ignorance of any risk that hasn’t yet hurt Read the whole article here

Zero Harm Takes The Focus Off Risk Management

pike riverThe OHS Leaders Summit was held recently on the Gold Coast in QLD Australia. At the Summit, various OHS Leaders were asked to present their leadership insights, experiences, thoughts and challenges that the OHS industry is facing. The causes and outcomes of  The Pike River Tragedy in New Zealand were discussed at length by Hans Buwalda, the Group Manager, Environment, Health & Safety, of Fletcher Building (a New Zealand based building and civil company)

The Problem With ZERO Goals and Results


I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking and writing about the variety of associated problems with using injury data to support the belief that low injury/damage results equate to a corporation being safe. The truth is that very safely operating companies have very low numbers of injuries and other unintended negative results. This is indeed something to celebrate. No-one being injured or becoming ill from their work is a wonderful result.

Zero Harm or Zero Pessimism

Zero Harm or Zero Pessimism Very interesting article by Sidney Dekker from the Safety Differently Blog about the manipulation that becomes the logical response to Zero Harm visions and targets. His final message is: “don’t worry about the dependent variable. It is what it is. Worry instead about the manipulable variables, and proudly talk about those. Compare yourselves on what you do, not on what the results are.” Please, someone step up and logically and sensibly either explain or defend

Zero Harm or 100% Safe?

Zero Harm or 100% Safe? Both phrases mean the same thing but which is more positive and credible? I caught a flight home this afternoon and for the first time in a while decided to really listen to the pre take off safety briefing. You have all heard it before…………then near the end they said something like “sit back, enjoy the inflight service and know that you are in the safest of hands”.

The Ideology of Zero Harm

Dr Rob Long takes another swipe at the ridiculous mantra of zero harm and its religious like following. It is pleasing to see a steady move away from this dangerous way of binary thinking. I worked recently with a Construction Contractor who gets this and even convinced their Principle to drop the stupid slogan to refocus on their people and their normal human aspirations. I chuckled when I saw a recent quote from a major player: “while others are targeting

Do you have any thoughts? Please share them below