1st June, 2021
Zero harm can never be achieved at work. It is unrealistic, practically impossible, and meaningless. These are all arguments against zero harm, and there are many (including health and safety professionals) who agree with them. So, is zero harm just setting ourselves up for failure?
What is zero harm? Well, as the name suggests, it is the aim of nobody getting hurt at work. Zero accidents, zero injuries. But since risk can never be zero, is zero harm ever achievable? Many say it's not.
And maybe stopping all accidents, forever, is unachievable. At least for now. But in an age where driverless cars are hitting the streets, who knows, we could all be working in protective bubbles or indestructible armour in the next 20 years.
So is zero harm just setting ourselves up for failure? Well, if your only target is zero, then maybe. But zero harm is a vision and should not be the only measure in your health and safety strategy. If it is, then you are heading for disappointment. It should be accompanied by an action plan and goals against which you can measure success. Because if you only measure zero, you're measuring failure (see number 7).
Here are 10 reasons why you can achieve zero harm.
Zero harm should be more than just a message on a poster. It needs to have an action plan. It needs to have meaning. Just blinding saying you aim for zero harm is like saying you want to become a millionaire. Without a plan in place, and without working towards it, it's unlikely to happen.
If you are aiming for zero harm (and let’s face it, everyone should be, no one wants to get hurt at work), what actions are in place to work towards it?
Zero harm needs everyone to be involved. Humans can cause accidents, and they can prevent them. From good leadership down to those on the tools, everyone has a part to play. From the top management team down to those on the tools. Budgets, deadlines, job pressures, resource and team allocation, processes and procedures all impact safety.
You can’t achieve zero harm alone, you have to work together.
Zero harm itself is not a goal or an objective. It’s a vision. The road towards that vision should have measurable and achievable goals. If you have 20 workplace accidents a year, your goal might be to reduce that number. To work towards zero harm, each year you will try to reduce the number of accidents happening. If you currently have a large number of trip accidents a year, a goal might be to train up all staff on the risks of slips, trips and falls within 4 months. Another goal might be to implement a near-miss reporting incentive for trip hazards within 2 months.
If you go in with the attitude that all targets are zero, and any accident or incident is a failure of the whole system, then you are doing it wrong. Zero harm is a journey, and all journeys start with a first step.
With any improvement, a small goal is achieved. A near miss is reported and a future accident prevented, a new control measure is introduced, a day without accidents, a dangerous machine is replaced. These are all successes. These are all steps on your journey to zero harm.
Another reason many argue zero harm fails is that it results in under-reporting of incidents and cover-ups. If your only way of measuring success is through zero reported accidents, then yes, this is a valid argument. This actively encourages people not to report accidents or incidents. Nobody wants to be the reason for failure.
But remember zero harm in the vision and not the goal. A good zero harm system should actively encourage reporting. Near miss reporting, accident reporting, incident reporting, all providing valuable information for health and safety improvements that can be made. All vital in moving towards zero harm.
You can't really measure zero. But what actions are you taking to prevent harm? Measure communication, health and safety actions, near-miss reporting, incident reporting, controls implemented, risk assessments carried out.
Do no near-miss reports mean a safe work environment? Or does it just mean no one is reporting them? Near-miss reports can help you prevent accidents. A business that talks about safety, monitors safety, and takes action on safety, is a business that can work towards zero harm. Measure actions and not a failure to take action.
A major reason for the argument that zero harm cannot be achieved is that it only measures accidents, and any accident is a failure. The goals we set up should measure and reward success, not measure and punish failure.
Success is safe behaviour, near-miss reporting, safety actions, completing training, getting involved. Measure, monitor and grow these safe behaviours.
One reason zero harm can fail is that it’s unrealistic. One reason it can succeed is, therefore, if you make it realistic.
As we mentioned before in this post, just saying you aim for zero harm, but not taking any action is unrealistic. By setting in place an action plan with measurable and realistic goals, just as we have discussed so far, you can achieve success with your zero harm vision.
Zero harm should not just be a topic for your boardroom, or your health and safety meetings. It shouldn’t just be on posters and in documents. And it must not be forgotten when there's a deadline to meet or other pressures on the job. It must be part of everything you do, and everything your team does. It is in the control measures, actions and behaviour of the workforce.
Zero harm is a vision, and one to work towards. Every time you move a step closer to that vision, that ultimate aim, you are succeeding. One step at a time, one goal, one improvement, it all adds up.
There are lots of reasons why a zero harm strategy can fail, there are lots of arguments against it, but there are also reasons why zero harm should be part of your health and safety vision. Everything we do in health and safety is to protect us from harm. The ultimate aim is that no one gets hurt.
Zero harm is not about setting ourselves up for failure, it’s about working towards success.
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This article was written by Emma at HASpod. Emma has over 10 years experience in health and safety and BSc (Hons) Construction Management. She is NEBOSH qualified and Tech IOSH.
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