On today’s episode, we discuss if it’s wise to adopt a “zero-harm” policy and if it is actually beneficial to improving safety.
We use the papers, Zero Accident, Vision-Based Strategies in Organizations; Zero Vision, Enlightenment, and Religion; and UK Construction Safety: A Zero Paradox to frame our discussion. Tune in to hear what we think!
“Yes: Every individual accident, there’s ways that we can find that it could have been avoided, but do we think that we can run a national road network and never kill anyone?”
“I think we have to keep in mind that if you’re not going to do quantitative evaluation research, then the conclusions that you draw can’t be quantitatively evaluated conclusions.”
“Over the study period, the zero group had four fatalities and the non-zero group had no fatalities.”
Zwetsloot, G. I., Kines, P., Wybo, J. L., Ruotsala, R., Drupsteen, L., & Bezemer, R. A. (2017). Zero Accident Vision based strategies in organisations: Innovative perspectives. Safety science, 91, 260-268.
Dekker, S. (2017). Zero commitment: commentary on Zwetsloot et al., and Sherratt and Dainty. Policy and Practice in Health and Safety, 15(2), 124-130.
Zwetsloot, G. (2017). Vision Zero: promising perspectives and implementation failures. A commentary on the papers by Sherratt and Dainty, and Dekker. Policy and Practice in Health and Safety, 15(2), 120-123.
Sherratt, F., & Dainty, A. R. (2017). UK construction safety: a zero paradox?. Policy and Practice in Health and Safety, 15(2), 108-116.
Sherratt, F., & Dainty, A. R. (2017). Responses to the vision zero articles. Policy and Practice in Health and Safety, 15(2), 117-119.
Dekker, S. W., Long, R., & Wybo, J. L. (2016). Zero vision and a Western salvation narrative. Safety science, 88, 219-223.
Dekker, S. (2017). Zero Vision: enlightenment and new religion. Policy and Practice in Health and Safety, 15(2), 101-107.
David: You’re listening to the Safety of Work podcast episode 12. Today, we're asking the question “Is adopting a zero-harm policy a good idea for safety? Let's get started.
Hey, everybody, my name's David Provan and I'm here with Drew Rae. We're from the Safety Science Innovation Lab at Griffith University. Welcome to the Safety of Work podcast. If this is your first time listening, then thanks for coming. The podcast is produced every week and the show notes can be found at safetyofwork.com. In each episode, we ask an important question in relation to the safety of work or the work of safety and we examine the evidence surrounding it.
Drew, what's today's controversial question?
Drew: In this episode, we're going to do something a little bit different. Rather than just present one paper, we're going to present both sides of an ongoing debate in Safety Science, and try to give our listeners some help in how to think about this from a scientific point of view. I want to give you an idea of what evidence we're looking for and what evidence there is on each side of the debate. The debate is basically whether adopting a zero-harm policy is a good idea.
Even before I dive into the background, I want to draw a bit of a disclaimer here that I've never myself worked in an organization that has an explicit zero-harm policy. I work a few doors down from Sidney Dekker, who is one of the authors we're going to talk about, who takes quite an anti-zero-harm stance. Personally, I suppose I probably come at this with a bit of a default opposed to zero harm but mainly for philosophical reasons rather than for practical reasons.
David, how about you?
David: I've worked in organizations that have had a zero-harm approach and I've seen some of the downsides of an approach like that, but I've also seen some of the positives of an approach like that as well. Hopefully, through both sides of the debate, I can provide a few examples of the things that are on both sides of this discussion. As a spoiler for the end of it, is a zero-harm policy a good idea? Yes, maybe in some circumstances. Is a zero-harm policy a good idea? Maybe not in some circumstances, too. This is one that I'm still out there on the fences as not having a definitive answer for myself.
Drew: Okay, a bit of clarity to start with. When we talk about zero harm, we're really talking about a lot of different names for similar concepts. You may have heard of toward zero, beyond zero, or target zero, zero harm, Zero Accident Vision, zero accident culture, pretty much anything that is about safety and has the word zero in it is really what we're talking about here. It comes from a really early philosophical idea in Safety Science.
People used to think that there was an irreducible minimum number of accidents. The idea was that work was inherently risky, people are imperfect, so as you put more and more effort into improving safety, you're approaching some asymptote, some unreachable point. But that asymptote isn't at the zero margins of the graph, it's sitting a bit above the graph. It's an invisible line somewhere above zero accidents.
In contrast to that, we've got an industrial backlash which says that can't be the case because when you look at every individual accident, it's something which is unacceptable and preventable. Now, that's almost more of a political position than a philosophical one. It's the idea that we shouldn't accept injuries and fatalities as never all part of work, that's unethical. If we accept them, then we're not putting our best efforts into prevention. Prevention requires a mindset that every accident shouldn't have happened and that we should be doing better.
David: If we think about, say, road traffic accidents as one of those things where there's a few, I think the traffic accident corporation now here in Victoria is approaching zero and some of this language is making its way into that environment as well. It's one of those same situations where is it possible to run a national road network with zero fatalities when currently, I think, one in 10,000 of the population is killed in a road accident every year. Yes, every individual accident, there are ways that we can find that it could have been avoided, but do we think that we can run a national road network and never kill anyone?
Drew: I don't think that we can have this conversation by ignoring the philosophical background. What I'm going to do is talk a little bit about the concept of zero, then we're going to put it aside and focus on the practicalities. What really matters for safety isn't actually the number of accidents. Accidents are an outcome that comes from the amount of risk. The way I like to picture it is imagine when you go to work, you're rolling a bunch of dice. If they all come up as ones, then you lose and get hurt.
When we talk about improving safety, we're reducing the amount of risk. It's like increasing the number of dice you’re rolling. At a dangerous workplace, you roll four dice and there's quite a high chance of them all being ones and you getting hurt. At a super safe workplace, you're rolling probably 12 dice and the chance of them all being ones is tiny. Something like one in two billion. The only way to be completely safe at this game is not to play at all. We can sometimes do that. You can eliminate the risk of working at heights by not working at heights. You can eliminate the risk of asbestosis by not using asbestos. But unless you're not going to go to work, you can't eliminate all risks at work.
From a purely mathematical point of view, no workplace ever, ever gets to zero. If you haven't had any accidents for a certain while, all that means is that you've been rolling the dice and no one has admitted getting all ones. Now that could be because it's safe and the risk is really, really low, it could be that you've just got lucky, it could be that the injuries are being hidden. We don't know. All we know is that somewhere in the background, those dice are rattling.
Now, that philosophical problem, the idea that zero accidents is meaningless is enough to just make some people angry. I'll happily admit that I'm one of the people who get irate with the idea of celebrating zero accidents because it's like being proud of being mathematically illiterate about risk. But let's put that aside because our question is not, and is explicitly not and never is, does zero harm make sense. The question is “Is having a zero-harm policy a good idea?” That's a different question.
You forget about when the gold itself is meaningful or achievable, ask yourself does adopting a zero-harm policy make your organization on average safer or less safe? Is it a good policy to have practically? What do you think? Is that the right question to ask?
David: Yeah, I think so. When we say zero-accident policy, a number of businesses might be saying it depends on what's in that policy. There are two ways of interpreting that zero harm thing. There's, is zero a target or is zero an aspiration? The people who think that the zero-harm policy is an aspiration say we know that we will never get there but it doesn't mean that we shouldn't try, and there are people who say, “Yes, we legitimately think it's a target that we can get to in at zero.”
I think we're on the right track. It's somewhere in there. Whether you're going to get there or not depends on your (I suppose) mathematical literacy to take your comment, but the idea is as it stands today, should your organization put in place that as either a target or an aspiration?
Drew: We're going to talk about three papers. The first paper is called Zero Accident Vision based Strategies in Organisations: Innovative Perspectives. The first author of that paper is Professor Gerard Zwetsloot. The second one is called Zero Vision: Enlightenment and New Religion by Professor Sidney Dekker. The third one is UK Construction Safety: A Zero Paradox? The authors of that one are Dr. Fred Sherratt and Professor Andrew Dainty.
This came as a bit of a surprise to me when I first realized it. Those authors basically represent the entire published academic literature on zero harm. If you look up anything about zero harm, chances are one of the authors I've just mentioned is somewhere all over that paper. Broadly speaking, Zwetsloot is in favor of zero-harm policies. He always calls it Zero Accident Vision because he wants to put his own branding on it and he's very pro.
Dekker is opposed to the idea of zero usually from more of a philosophical point of view, but he always talks about it as a target. It's Zwetsloot and Dekker who were sometimes talking across purposes. Zwetsloot was saying it's an aspiration and that's good and Dekker is saying it's a target and that's bad.
Sherratt doesn’t actually take a strong position. She's written two papers. The first one is fairly pro-zero harm and the second one gives a slightly anti-conclusion, but really the focus is describing and evaluating zero harm as it's understood by those who implement it. I think we can think Sherratt hits the middle ground.
David: Since we're trying to talk as practically as possible and try to do these topics in justice for our listeners—I'm sure that probably few of our listeners will be satisfied with this podcast and maybe it's a great one for those who haven't joined in the discussion on LinkedIn to dive in and fire your thoughts at us—but to be as practical as possible, we're not going to cover every argument that's made by these authors. We're going to start to look at the evidence, what they cite, the problems, and I suppose advantages that they put forward with their various claims.
Like you said, Zwetsloot says that Zero Accident Vision is a strategy of commitment. There's another paper that he did where he looked at, I think, 13 or so companies in Europe which is signed up to the Zero Accident Vision, compared with the reference population around safety climate, and said, “Yeah, look, if you do have a Zero Accident Vision, your organization is going to rate you higher on a safety climate survey that says safety is a priority for management.”
That conclusion says that more resources and better decisions are going to flow in that organization because top management has made this Zero Accident Vision commitment and aspiration. That's going to be good for safety. He talks about it in the context of climate largely when he talks about the Zero Accident Vision.
Drew: Just like with climate, Zwetsloot was fairly agnostic about what it is that happens as a result. I know some safety climate and safety culture people are almost behaviorists in that they talk about you need safety culture results in compliant workers. That's not the claim that Zwetsloot is making. He's not saying promote a Zero Accident Vision and your workers will all fall into line. He's mainly talking about management decisions and saying that when management make this commitment required to undertake activities that describe that commitment, and promote that commitment, that the result of that commitment is going to be that they start making decisions in favor of safety.
Those decisions can be all sorts of things. They could be stopping dangerous activities. They could be adopting new management styles. They could be introducing automation for a dangerous production line. It doesn't really matter what good safety looks like. It's just having that vision is going to promote you to go out and spend the time and effort on bringing that good safety into your organization.
David: There are a couple of problems with this approach from a practical and scientific point of view. Practically, by not telling people clearly what the outcomes you're trying to achieve or how you're trying to get the means that it's hard for people to know what you want them to do, and they're going to make their own decisions in that space. Then from a scientific point of view, if you're not making any claims about what you are going to achieve, then it's very hard to measure and test whether or not you've had the impact that you think you're going to have with the Zero Accident Vision.
Drew: I think one of the big problems is, it's all very well for an academic author like Zwetsloot to say that zero is about the commitment, it's not about having a target. That's not what a lot of companies do. A lot of companies that have got zero harm, target zero, mission zero programs, they do set specific targets.
Sometimes, they've got a specific timeline they can tell you whether their path is to zero and whether they're meeting that path or not. Zwetsloot doesn't believe that zero is achievable. He thinks it's a journey, but that doesn't mean that everyone who does zero shares that same belief.
David: No, and I think some of our own research about when you put something into an organization and it potentially gets corrupted through different roles and different interactions in the organization, this is one of the spaces where I've seen it to be really challenging for an organization even when the board and the senior management team have more of an aspirational conversation and never quite expect the organization to turn it into a target. People at lower levels form their own perception of views about what senior management wants when they actually make this statement, which is don't have any accidents.
We know all the political and personal ramifications in organizations of being a manager of an area that has an accident means that I think this is where Dekker steps in and says that there's no situation where this is a good thing for organizations because of the way that organizations corrupt these messages.
Drew: This is where I think when we're evaluating something like zero harm, we need to be really careful about what we're evaluating. Are we evaluating the ideal image of it that it's a commitment, it's a journey, it's a process? Are we evaluating it after it gets corrupted and it becomes a target? Or are we evaluating something else? Zwetsloot would like us to evaluate it and he says that people who have targets are doing it wrong, so don't count that in your evaluation, only count the ones who are doing it properly. Dekker would like us to focus solely on the ones who have it as a target.
This is probably the best place to move on then, say, what is the evidence? Zwetsloot cites a lot of both academic papers and non-academic sources. Pretty much all of these follow the same pattern. It's a company that has adopted some zero program and then subsequently, usually by their own self-assessment, they've got safer.
We've got lots of instances of companies that can say, “Look, we were unsafe or we weren't as safe as we wanted to be. We adopted zero harm, brand zero, target zero, or Zero Accident Vision and over the next couple of years, we had fewer injuries or we had fewer fatalities.” That's the type of evidence is this body of companies that got better.
David: Or we did a climate survey, then we went out with lots of senior management messaging around zero harm, and we got increased scores on employees’ perceptions of management commitment to safety.
Drew: Yeah. For what it's worth, there's this one study that's the one you talked about before, David. It was a self-selected group of companies that decided to be part of this study. That set of companies scored above the benchmark on a safety culture survey. The claim is that compared to the general population, this group of zero harm companies did better. It's a bit of a dodgy way to do it but it's a plausible claim that promoting any zero commitment does score higher when people ask are you committed to safety.
David: We have this problem about how to evaluate if Zero Accident Vision works. Zwetsloot lives on that side of the debate that says that Zero Accident Vision as an aspiration for an organization is going to improve your safety climate and going to improve your safety outcomes. Before we get into Dekker’s, is there any other conclusions that you want to draw out of this side of the debate?
Drew: I think this is where having people who are strong advocates for their own position leads to a really difficult research landscape. One of the people who is most interested in having through the research into zero is Zwetsloot. He's the first one to say we need more research. But because he's such a strong advocate for it, he always takes the assumption that it works and says we need a research that understands how it works, how do these zero companies get so good. He's less interested in evaluation research.
He gives a lot of the arguments that you and I have given ourselves as to why we should do qualitative research rather than quantitative research. He has quite plausible arguments while we can't do randomized controlled experiments of zero-harm policy. I think we have to keep in mind that if you're not going to do quantitative evaluation research, then the conclusions that you draw can't be quantitative evaluative conclusions. We can't say we don't want to do comparative experiments but also claim that this is a policy that works.
David: Zwetsloot’s side of the debate is organizations adopting a Zero Accident Vision or a zero harm commitment strategy or vision is going to improve the safety of their organizations, that's a claim. Let's go to the other side of the debate. Sidney Dekker is the most verbal on this side of the debate. Do you want to give us a sense of what the arguments are on the other side?
Drew: The first thing I want to say is that Dekker has got a lot of philosophical objections to zero. He puts it into the context of the enlightenment and utopian world, as well as where the zero is a meaningful thing. But if you set aside that philosophical stuff, the practical arguments against zero harm are almost a mirror image of the arguments in favor of zero harm.
Dekker is saying that adopting a commitment to zero is going to flow on to a number of side effects but he said that those side effects are going to be harmful rather than good. Whereas Zwetsloot is a bit agnostic about what the positive things are, Dekker gives quite a specific list of negative side effects.
The first one is that if you adopt zero harm, you're going to have a focus on minor accidents at the expense of major accident risks. Now, this is something that Zwetsloot acknowledges and he responds to this by saying, “Yeah, that's why you don't commit to preventing all accidents. You commit to preventing all serious accidents.” But that doesn't really answer Dekker's concern because Dekker reckons that no matter how you word it, adopting a zero-harm policy is going to result in a focus on minor events, because they're the easiest ones to drive the number down and to make progress towards that zero target.
David: I think that's one of the areas that I've seen happen very much is that if you have a zero-harm policy, a zero accident policy, or anything like that, you look at your safety scorecard, the measures that you have, you look at all those minor incidents, and zero means zero across the board. Sometimes, a zero-harm policy gets translated into zero serious incidents, zero minor incidents, zero investigations overdue, zero action overdue, zero audit non-conformances, and zero everything, zero safety training non-compliances.
It gets translated to zero across the scorecard and across the board and the focus becomes on trying to make all those numbers as close to zero as possible. We know that major accidents don't appear on that scorecard very often. They're usually not in front of the line.
Drew: The second thing that Dekker says is that you're going to have distorted reporting because we're trying to reach this target of zero, there's a lot of incentive to drive the numbers down, or if the numbers are at zero, there's going to be incentive to artificially keep them at zero. Now, Zwetsloot’s response to this is, of course, that zero is not about targets, but again, that's not really a response to the objection either because Dekker is a bit more sophisticated than just saying having a zero target is going to result in hiding them.
He says that in order to have the commitment, the organization has to stick to this illusion that zero is possible. You can't admit that it's a lie, you can't admit that it's unattainable, you have to pretend that it is attainable. Having that illusion, preserving the illusion is going to mean that the policy is going to result in hiding or reclassifying events to either reach, make progress towards, or preserve the illusion of zero.
Then leads on to the third criticism, that having an unrealistic policy means that you're going to have cynicism and disengagement. If management pretends that zero is possible and workers know that zero is not possible, then workers aren't going to take the policy seriously. Again, Zwetsloot’s response is yeah, but it's not a target, it's a process. The same thing, that response is they're talking past each other, that doesn't really resolve the problem. I should point out here that Dekker doesn't talk about these as predictions of side effects, Dekker claims that all these three things are already true and already proven.
He says that zero harm does lead to focus on minor accidents, he says it does lead to distorted reporting, and he says it does lead to cynicism and disengagement. We’re just personally adding the word predict here that these things are areas of disagreement. Dekker claims or predicts that these things will happen and Zwetsloot claims or predicts that they won't. That's where the evidence-based debate is does zero harm lead to the improvements or does it lead to these things.
David: I think that what he predicted is really interesting because when I read these lists and when I would think about proven, this is an area which is also maybe a gap in the Safety Science Research because I know personally, I know a number of my colleagues, and I'm sure many of our listeners would say, “Yeah, absolutely.” I've seen focus on say, personal safety instead of process safety for minor incidents versus major accident risks. I've absolutely seen the reclassification of events. I’m personally not being proud of being in the organization's setting targets that have resulted in knowing that down the track, that's what had actually happened as a result of that.
Then cynicism, disengagement, I've definitely been involved in conversations one-on-one with shop floor workers which has showed that some of these policies can increase that gap between workers and imagined that workers done. I think I'd say they're proven in a sense of being proven in my career but proven in terms of the Safety Science literature, probably not.
Drew: That's why I think this is a debate that can be resolved by evidence, we just don't have the evidence yet. Zwetsloot predicts that if you have a Zero Accident Vision, then that can happen as a commitment strategy without specific targets or timelines and it results in a range of safety improvements. That's an evidence-based claim. We can look and find. Are there lots of places where people have got the vision but they don't have targets and timelines?
Dekker predicts that adopting the vision, people are going to start thinking it's an actual measurement target and it's going to result in some specific safety harms. We can test that. Are these harms more prevalent in organizations that have zero as a measurable target? An interesting thing is that both authors agree on the terms of the debate.
Zwetsloot agrees that the things that Dekker says are harmful would, in fact, be harmful. He just doesn't think they're going to happen. Dekker agrees that Zwetsloot’s improvements are, in fact, improvements. He just doesn't think they're caused by Zero Accident Vision. He thinks that they’re just coincidences.
David, do you think we've looked fairly laid out for, at least, the terms of the debate?
David: Yeah. I think you've done a good job in laying out both sides of the debate. If I summarize it just to check that I've got it right, we say Zwetsloot on the pro-Zero Accident Vision side says it's an aspiration, it’s a commitment strategy, it's not intended to be about targets. It’s intended to create an environment within the organization that prioritizes, directs resources and effort towards safety, and that's going to be a good thing.
Dekker said that's not the way organizations work. If you have a zero harm or a Zero Accident Vision policy, it's going to turn into targets and it's going to generate a whole lot of behavior that is counter to your safety improvement and safety management efforts in the organization. I think both are the strongest advocates on both sides of the debate haven't really individually done any compelling research which supports their own position.
Drew: Yeah, I think that's a fair summary. Let's look to the only neutral evidence we have and that's this Sherratt and Dainty paper. Quite usefully, this is a statistical study. What they did is they looked at the top 20 construction contractors in the UK and they used Freedom of Information requests in order to get hold of both the fatality and a thing called the specified injury statistics for those 20 contractors. Specified injury is the UK reporting category for, what in Australia I think we usually call major or reportable injuries, so amputations, damage to sight, loss of consciousness, et cetera. It's really that set of injuries that you can't possibly hide through your reporting process.
David: Yeah. I think it's hospitalization for a period of days, electric shock, there's a categorization. It's good that they didn't go to self-reported organizational first-aid injuries and they intentionally didn't go and get any of the reporting and non-reporting biases into their data set.
Drew: Then the next thing they did is they used public documents to work out which companies had or didn't have a zero harm or similar policy. They used the same guidelines that we used at the start of this episode. They looked for whether they had a branded policy, if they didn't have a branded policy, they looked for a [...] where they used the word “zero” a lot. Quite neatly for the study, it worked out that 9 out of the 20 companies—almost half—had a zero policy and 11 out of the 20 didn't.
Let’s do a nice neat comparison. Which group is going to be the most dangerous? Over the study period, the zero group had four fatalities and the non-zero group had no fatalities. The zero group had 214 specified injuries, the non-zero group had 135 specified injuries. If you just take raw count, non-zero wins.
The next thing we need to ask is are these two groups really comparable? Maybe they're doing different types of work, maybe they're doing different amounts of work. They made an assumption. They said that probably the amount of turnover that a construction company has is an indicator of the size and type of projects that they're doing.
As a rough assumption, lets just assume that the amount of turnover indicates whether the groups are comparable or not. When they turn this into rates, they found that the zero groups still had a higher rate of fatalities or specified injuries per billion dollars worth of turnover. That's a fairly rough and ready way of working out with the companies that are comparable. One thing we don't quite know is how this works with the construction supply chain, with the subcontractors, and some subcontractors, how those get included in these top-level figures.
There are a few sources of possible error here. What we do have is definitely the case that the zero group doesn't have any claim to being safer and a bit of weak evidence that says that the zero group, in fact, was facing slightly higher risk. Interestingly, they also did a bit of a brief historical analysis to see when the companies had adopted the zero policy. They found that there was a pattern that companies that have adopted zero came to have an increase in accidents after adopting the policy compared to beforehand with the same sorts of caveats that is fairly weak statistical evidence.
David: Nevertheless, it's fascinating. We've talked about the weaknesses of using injury rates and this sample but it's still a fascinating data to raise a whole heap of questions, particularly around what happens in the first six months after an organization makes this commitment. If this weak evidence of an increase in accidents, you just really want to be inside all these organizations, understanding what's actually happening, and how that vision or policy is actually being translated in the minds of all the individuals within that organization.
Drew: Yes. Sherratt and Dainty stepped fairly carefully around their own data. I think that most strongly worded thing they say is that when you make a zero-harm policy, it makes a dramatic change to the branding of your safety program. In comparison to that big change, any change to actual safety is insignificant at best and slightly negative at worst.
David: Yeah. That idea of branding we spoke about this in the model in the paper that gave rise to the name of this podcast, the Safety of Work. We talked about social safety as something that organizations do to make themselves feel safe and to make it clear to others their commitment to safety, but if nothing physically actually changes, then the safety risk doesn't actually reduce in the organization.
Drew: That's consistent with what Zwetsloot is claiming is he's saying that zero harm is supposed to lead to management decisions that make big physical changes to the company. He never claimed that there's just going to be this subtle influence that your branded program is going to suddenly make your workers behave better. He's claiming that management commitment leads to management decisions. It's just that the evidence so far seems to show that actually, it's more about the other, that these are big branded programs that don't lead to management making big physical changes.
David: They typically are big-branded programs. Should we move on to practical takeaways now?
Drew: Yeah, let's do that.
David: I want to talk about three areas of practical takeaways. I want to talk about targets, expectations, and messaging. There's a bit of overlap between expectations and messaging. Before we say should you adopt a zero-harm policy or should you not adopt a zero-harm policy, if you don't currently have one, I think you might find better ways to talk about your aspiration for safety than to tie your organization up into all of the existing advantages, disadvantages, and cynicism around zero harm with your action.
My personal opinion, I'm not sure if you agree, would be if you don't currently have one, it may not be, at the present point in time, a path to walk down. There might be alternative pathways which are better for you in terms of your aspiration around safety.
Drew: Yeah, I’d agree with the caveat in the other direction that if you do only have one, getting rid of it isn't a no-brainer decision, it's if you don't have one, I certainly wouldn't recommend adopting one. But that doesn't mean that you're bad if you've got one or that you should just suddenly abandon it if you've got one.
David: Yeah. I think if you've got one at the moment, you've got two options, one would be to clarify it to your organization as we're going to talk about now, the second would be to rebrand it as something else with, again, clear explanation in your organization about why because if your organization is a little bit cynical about the strategy, then removing it will probably make them even more cynical about management's priorities towards safety.
If we talk about targets, both sides of the argument agree that zero, as an actual target for safety events, is a nonsense target and should not be set by organizations as a target. The first thing that we need to talk about is practical takeaways. We've been talking about this for decades about minor injury rates in organizations. If you have targets around those minor injury rates, unrealistic targets or unrealistic improvement expectations around those minor injury rates, it's probably not a good thing for safety.
Drew: My suggestion is if you're in an organization that has a zero policy, don't fight the policy, fight for how it’s interpreted and used. You stick to that key great idea that focusing on zero is about management commitment to eliminating hazards, it's not about commitment to driving numbers down.
David: I think that goes, too, straight into the next point about expectations being very specific about want from people from people. Vague commitments like zero harm or our executive team has a Zero Accident Vision can lead to confusing expectations, what does management want me to do, what don't they want me to do, what target do they want me to achieve. Be very clear.
If you, for example, said we have a Zero Accident Vision but we haven't set it as a target because that's unrealistic, we're going to set our expectations around the positive things we want you to do, we want every department to increase its safety budget, we are going to lower production targets to remove the goal conflict around that, we are going to have a program where all individual sites review their critical risks, invest in higher-order engineering and elimination type of control measures, and a long, long list of all really specific expectations about what you're going to do to improve safety, then the fact that you've got zero harm or Zero Accident Vision somewhere in the background driving all that activity is probably not going to be much of an issue for you.
Drew: Yeah. Don't focus on that high-level brand. Focus on the list of bullet points below it. We have a zero-harm policy, therefore, we expect you to do this list of things and make sure that that's a good list of things.
David: Yeah, and measure people, evaluate people's performance against their execution against those lists of things, and not the outcomes that are achieved as a result.
Drew: That probably flows pretty seamlessly into our third takeaway which is don't get hung up on the branding in either direction of the debate. If you don't like the idea of zero harm, then focus on spot-finding the specific problems it causes. Even if we can't all agree on whether we like or don't like zero harm, hopefully, we can agree that focusing on minor accidents at the expense of major risks is a bad thing and we can try not to do that.
Hopefully, we can agree that discouraging reporting of bad news is a bad thing and we can fight against that. Hopefully, we can agree that we need to be careful when we're running safety campaigns that they can accidentally seem a bit silly and cause disengagement. We can make sure that we're looking for genuine engagement with safety, not nicely branded campaigns that are actually a joke to the workforce.
David: Drew, we'll circle back around on those takeaways in a minute as we conclude but what are the things that you'd like to know from our listeners that we haven't talked about?
Drew: Something that I'm genuinely curious about is I'd like to understand more about the way we brand safety programs. In fact, just the fact that we like to brand safety programs, I worry a lot that genuinely new ideas in safety seem to fall into these same patterns. We used to have zero-harm campaigns, we now have safety differently campaigns. Is that a different thing or is it just a different brand?
I'd love to hear what our listeners think or better still have experienced when it comes to either being part of a branded safety campaign or running one yourself. What do you think of the advantages and disadvantages of sticking a label and a logo on top of safety? What can we do to research more about how to make that effective or even whether we should or shouldn't be doing that?
David: I'd be really curious to know an extension of that when we talk about zero harm or Zero Accident Vision, our listeners who have that in their organization and they think that they've got it working reasonably constructively and well for their safety program. What are the things they're doing below that top-level brand that they can share that they think is contributing to it having that positive type of effect that Zwetsloot would talk about it having and how are they counteracting the negative things that Dekker might say would go alongside that zero-harm campaign. I'd love to know people's taste experience with working that out in their organization.
That's it for this week. Drew, our question for the week was is adopting a zero-harm policy a good or a bad idea? Do we have a clear answer?
Drew: I think we have to say we don't have a clear answer but what we were aiming for and hopefully we've achieved is to help you put the two sides of debate into a bit of context. We give you some feel for where the evidence might exist in the future to help us decide this debate.
David: Yeah, like I said at the start, for me, is zero-harm policy a good idea? It might be and it might not be depending on all of the other things that you've got in your organization around that particular brand. Like we said, if you do have a zero harm, a Zero Accident Vision policy, or you're thinking of putting one in place, the practical feedback for us would be think carefully about targets, expectations, and messaging and spend a lot of time figuring out how you're going to get all those things working for you in your organization.
Drew: Absolutely. We hope you found this episode thought-provoking and ultimately useful in shaping the safety of work in your own organization. As always, send any comments, questions, or ideas for future episodes to our LinkedIn group or to firstname.lastname@example.org.