Zero Harm - Myth or more?

It’s a much debated concept this notion of “Zero Harm”. But what exactly does it mean and how credible a goal (or even aspiration) is it? Is it something companies should realistically strive for or is it, as an objective, more theoretical or philosophical in nature?
For sure, it’s a strong aspirational vision that is effectively saying we’ll send all of our people home safely every day. Proponents of the programmes suggest that if you take care of the little injuries and focus resources on them then you’re automatically working to create a culture of safety that will lead to a reduced risk of the company suffering more major injuries – up to and including death.
Others suggest that it’s a waste of resources. As you can’t eliminate every injury, you should focus your scarce resources on making sure the big ones don’t happen. They argue that a Zero Harm ideology can actually undermine a safety culture in organisations by encouraging under-reporting for example. They would say that whilst management might understand that their Zero Harm mantra is really an aspiration more concerned with the creation of a real culture of safety than the complete eradication of every single harmful incident (however slight) – that nuanced thinking doesn’t always permeate down the line. And so the troops at the coalface take the statement to mean that zero is the goal and anything else is failure – which is hard for them to embrace. When the proper meaning of the statement isn’t expressed by the Leadership, it ultimately leads to employee disengagement and when they don’t understand the long-term vision and aspirational nature of the programme – then every injury is a subsequent nail in the coffin of the “Zero Harm” programme.
The anti-zero camp also argue that the notion of “Zero” can convey a dangerous misrepresentation of the realities of risk; the notion that one day, if we do our job right there’ll come a time when we will achieve perfection in terms of the safety of our business. They argue that so long as humans, with all their failings and tendency towards error are involved, that’s just not a reality. Absolutes are simply not achievable. And if that’s the case - how does having an unachievable goal inspire or motivate a workforce to take ownership of their own safety and risk in the workplace? Where is the merit in unifying employees around a single objective that we know can never be achieved?
That kind of thinking is reflected in a recent (2013) Informa Australia poll completed amongst EHS professionals in which only 25% of respondents claimed that Zero Harm was an achievable goal. The other 75% placed it firmly in the aspirational category. That’s not to say they don’t believe there’s merit in companies adopting it as a statement of intent, they’re just being clear that the notion that you could have a workplace where no one was ever injured – in any way - is simply not realistic.
Indeed, most people would agree that you can never eliminate ever single occurrence of harm in the workplace. So, for example, the creation of a workplace where no one ever went over on an ankle, caught their finger in a door or suffered some form of short-term mental stress may simply be beyond the realm of doability. From that perspective it might be useful to put some definition around the word “harm” itself. So maybe what we’re really talking about is reportable injuries – up to and including a fatality?
Wherever you sit on the spectrum of support with this one, it’s hard to argue but that having a goal of Zero Harm (whether truly achievable or more of an aspiration) is unlikely to lead companies to deliver anything other than solid safety programmes that protect their employees – providing it’s not just an exercise in safety “branding”. For Zero Harm programmes to be effective, they must be about creating a sustainable workplace health and safety culture based on the principle that all serious injuries are preventable. Perhaps the real key to success with Zero Harm initiatives is treating it as less a finite goal and more a philosophical position to be embraced to ensure that workplace health and safety forms an integral part of the company’s values, and that the guiding principles are embedded into the type of culture you’re trying to create. No doubt the debate will endure.