Why Zero Harm is a Terrible Goal

Zero Harm is a fantastic philosophy, but a terrible goal. Let me explain. Those supporting the goal of zero harm will argue if you set a target of anything less, then in effect you are aiming to hurt someone every year. If it’s not zero, then it must be a number greater than zero – how many are you allowing to be hurt in your business? While I agree with the concept, it’s the practicalities of this goal that create even more needless harm.

One of the yardsticks to measuring harm (however a company defines it) is an outdated concept of Lost time Injuries. This lag (or after the event has occurred) measure is often pegged to bonus payments for employees and managers. Get this rate down, your bonus go up. The easiest way to get the rate down then is not to report an injury. In other words, carry the injury and take one for the team. A recent report into UK rail by the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) on UK concluded:

“From the evidence gathered in the review, we consider this real and perceived pressure and fear have arisen as unintended consequences of the Network Rail implementation of the overall strategy for safety (which was consciously designed to improve safety), based on the use of quantitative safety targets, safety performance measures, league tables and contractual requirements linked to the number of reported Riddor lost-time injuries; other management actions, such as the frequent company reorganisations, and the application of a managing for attendance policy.”

In another example Volvo have a clearly defined goal of zero harm. Note how the measure of this goal is based around LTI. They are doing so many great things which would have reduced LTI, but given the whole approach of the company to reduce LTI, it really is no surprise the LTI rate has reduced to nothing for 8 months. And who would want to be the one to break the record? Shhhh…it’s not that bad mate, no need to report that injury.

But the point of reporting even minor injuries is to allow your business to find out where the next disaster may come from. Minor injuries may arise from an accident that, if the luck had swung the other way, could have been a catastrophe. Have a look at any major accident and you will find a past riddled with under-reporting. I bet (while not scientific) LTI or Lost Time Injuries were also a significant reporting measure within those companies. So having a goal of Zero Harm inadvertently will create a culture of under-reporting in your business. The result is you will move away from becoming a learning culture, and the goal of Zero Harm will increase the number of needless accidents and injuries. However, if you are serious about safety performance then only a full-frontal campaign, an urgency implied by the Zero Harm target will suffice. So what should you do?

In New Zealand, a forum of business leaders have formed under the Zero Harm Workplaces banner, and I think they have taken the right approach. Clearly Zero Harm is the rallying banner, but the Forum’s pledge, action plan and picture of a world-class safety leader do not talk about having a Zero Harm goal. It is the mission, or the vision for the forum. Personally I can’t stand endless debates around the nuances with words however, this is really important to get it right.

What you need to do then is decide that Zero Harm is the mission of your business, and then set about defining goals (SMART) that will achieve the mission. Critically, you then need to measure how well you are performing. If the goals are well thought through then you can start by developing measures to ensure the goals will be met. What you measure will drive behaviours – choose them carefully. And be careful how the CEO communicates the OSH Zero Harm message within your business.