Zero Harm – Just Say No!

Zero Harm – Just Say No!

Depositphotos_28643277_xsJust discovered this absolute gem of an article by Dave Whitefield and first published in February 2012 in the Australian Mine Safety Journal – read the whole article here.

Many of you have told me that you sometimes find the social psychology related discussions about zero harm a little difficult to get your heads around at the moment – I am still slowly gaining an understanding of that myself but looking forward to learning a whole lot more in the future! However, in this article Dave, questions the value of, and highlights the danger of zero harm in way we can probably all understand and relate to. What struck an immediate chord with me was his point about how we would never using zero harm at home but expect workers to make that instant switch to zero harm mode when they arrive at work! You should read the whole article but this is my little summary of the points he makes in his excellent argument:

  • Despite the hype around zero harm, it isn’t working (what has changed since the article was written 2 1/2 years ago?) – we are still causing too much serious injury illness and death at work and if we keep doing the same thing we will get the same result. Doing the same thing… Expecting a different result?
  • it is an inappropriate tool to use when trying to improve safety in the workplace.
  • in OHS we need to be willing to question what we currently do, and be willing to let go of it if it isn’t working, even if it was our idea in the first place, or if we don’t have the next answer.
  • When did zero harm become the must have patch for hi viz shirts and appear prominently on every piece of stationary?
  • it has gained a lot of traction along with the rise of the many and varied behavioural safety initiatives.
  • In the early days it was a visionary statement used by leaders, however over time it has become the lynchpin of OHS.
  • Many companies feel they have to advocate zero harm to win contracts with the big players
  • The two basic problems created by using zero harm are that: one it actually damages safety culture, and two it can hide serious underlying safety risks.
  • for most of us we have three primary areas of our life, our home life, our recreational activities, and out work. Now if I asked you whether you expected zero harm at home what would you say? For me, I don’t expect zero harm at home. I’m OK with a little bit of harm, with minor scratches and bumps and burns, and when it comes to recreational activities I think it is even harder to apply zero harm. How can you participate in any physical sport, let alone a contact sport, and apply zero harm?
  • when we get to work we are suddenly asked to shift into zero harm mode, and I think it just doesn’t fit with the average workers expectations. It is so absolute, and I honestly think most workers are OK with a little bit of harm – with the minor cuts and bumps and scratches. But this belief is at odds with zero harm, and so it creates disenfranchised workers and cracks workplace culture.
  • we assume that the incident triangle is a predictor, not just a factual statement of statistical probabilities. When used incorrectly (as a predictor) it has created a myth that if we reduce the number of minor injuries, then we are less likely to have serious incidents. However the energies that cause minor injuries do not cause serious injuries, illness and death. Vehicles don’t cause scratches. When you fall from a ladder it doesn’t matter if you have your sleeves rolled down. Electricity doesn’t care if you’ve done a JSA, Take 5 or have a Permit. The problem is that the misuse of the incident triangle as a predictor, when combined with zero harm, becomes deadly.
  • A zero harm philosophy makes everyone focus on what happens more often, which is the minor stuff (especially if their pay is affected by it). This drives compliance efforts for minor issues, which in turn often reduces minor injuries.
  • People get complacent because they see a reduction in minor injuries as an indicator that there is much less chance of serious injury or death – there may be a false belief that things are safer than they really are?
  • Zero harm is a negative and absolute term, has no place in a modern safety program and can hide significant underlying safety issues.
  • Get rid of it, talk to your workforce and ask them what they want and what is really important to them.

Read more at: | Australasian Mine Safety Journal

Dave Whitefield
After 20 years in safety and training, I now focus primarily on the human side of safety. I help clients tackle their wicked problems through seeking to understand how people organise in response to uncertainty, and how they make sense of risk. I do this through consulting, coaching, training and workshop design and delivery, MC'ing events and conferences, and delivery of keynote presentations.

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