Zero Harm

by George Robotham on October 2, 2013

in George Robotham,Zero Harm


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 in more recent years. In recent times I have been receiving communications from a senior operational manager in a prominent Qld organisation arguing strongly that Zero Harm is doing more harm than good. There have been papers at some major OHS conferences in recent times questioning the value of Zero Harm. There was extended discussion on the topic on the Safety Institute of Australia OHS discussion forum some months ago. I found the paper on this topic on the Intersafe web-site quite informative.

The most commonly reported problems with Zero Harm that I hear reported are-

1 It leads to covering up and under reporting of personal damage.

2 Inordinate amounts of time, effort and resources are spent on very minor issues thus making a mockery of the safety management system

Zero harm is warm, fuzzy stuff with an emotional appeal, the trouble with emotional appeal is it sometimes prevents logical analysis.

Some people say zero harm is a fallacy and the goals are impossible or unachievable and there is far too much focus on minor injuries to the detriment of the serious side of town.

I think my major objection to zero harm is it does not target attention, effort and limited resources on the serious injuries where you get the biggest bang for your buck. Of course you are also kidding yourself if you think you can actually achieve zero harm. Goals must be realistic and not only admirable.

Australian safety researcher Geoff McDonald has a system of classifying personal damage occurrences (“Accidents “) that goes something like this-

Class 1-Permanently alters the future of the individual

Class 2-Temporarily alters the future of the individual

Class 3 –Inconveniences the individual

Geoff has investigated many thousand Class 1 damage occurrences in his career and maintains the most effective way to make meaningful progress in safety is by focusing on the class 1 phenomena. .

A study into Australia’s personal damage experience by the Productivity Council said 13% of occurrences were Class 1 with 82% of the damage.

Zero Class 1 damage is the approach I would take in order to target our efforts and limited resources

in the most productive area.

George Robotham

George Robotham

George was a Legend in the Safety World who passed away in Sept 2013 but left us with a great legacy
George Robotham
I have worked in OHS for most of my working life, many years in the mining industry including over 10 years in a corporate OHS role with BHP. Since leaving the mining industry I have worked in a variety of safety roles with a variety of employers, large & small, in a variety of industries. I was associated with my first workplace fatality at age 21, the girl involved was young, intelligent, vivacious and friendly. Such a waste! I was the first on the scene and tried to comfort her and tend to her injuries. She said to me “George, please do not let me die” We put her on the aerial ambulance to Rockhampton base hospital where she died the next day. I do not mind telling you that knocked me around for awhile. Since then I have helped my employers cope with the aftermath of 12 fatalities and 2 other life-altering events. The section "Why do Occupational Health & Safety" provides further detail but in summary, poor safety is simply very expensive and also has a massive humanitarian cost. My qualifications include a certificate I.V. in Workplace Training and Assessment, a Diploma in Frontline Management, a Diploma in Training & Assessment Systems, a Bachelor of Education (Adult & Workplace Education) , a Grad. Cert. in Management of Organisational Change and a Graduate Diploma in Occupational Hazard Management. I am currently studying towards a Masters in Business Leadership. Up until recently I had been a Chartered Fellow of the Safety Institute of Australia for 10 years and a member for about 30 years. My interest is in non-traditional methods of driving organisational change in OHS and I have what I believe is a healthy dis-respect for many common approaches to OHS Management and OHS Training. I hold what I believe is a well-founded perception that many of the things safety people and management do in safety are “displacement activities” (Displacement activities are things we do, things we put a lot of energy into, but which when we examine them closely there is no valid reason for doing them). My managerial and leadership roles in OHS have exposed me to a range of management techniques that are relevant to Business Improvement. In particular I am a strong supporter of continuous improvement and quality management approaches to business. I believe leadership is the often forgotten key to excellence in most aspects of life. I hold the Australian Defence Medal and am a J.P.(Qualified). I have many fond memories of my time playing Rugby Union when I was a young bloke.

Previous post:

Next post: