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Apr 11 2012

Zero Harm – Hope or Hype

Zero HarmIt now seems that just about every firm has a Zero Harm program in one form or another. Such programs are in place across industries and across countries and even the most basic search for health and safety information will bring up references to Zero Harm. So, is Zero Harm just marketing hype or does it contribute to improving health and safety performance by reducing the number people being injured at work?

An intuitive understanding of Zero Harm is that it means what it says – nobody gets harmed and that’s a no brainer surely? Other than psychopaths, I can’t think of anyone who would not subscribe to the notion that people shouldn’t be hurt at any time (not just at work). I don’t know of any employer who goes out of their way to injure their employees or employees who go to work with the intent of being injured.

However, people are hurt every day both inside and outside of work because life is not risk free and where there is risk, eventually it will be realized. Since the intuitive understanding of the term is therefore unsustainable (you will never get a risk free work environment so you will always have injuries of one form or another) the concept gets redefined to become something to aspire to rather than something to achieve.

Although Zero Harm remains prominent, the concept gets qualified by such things as “Moving Toward Zero Harm” or “To Achieve Zero Harm we will ….”. Other qualifications seek to define what is meant by “Harm” such as fatalities or lost time injuries with more than x number of days off. The latter totally loses the plot having little if any relevance to the any notion of Zero Harm. All of these qualifications are usually less prominent than the Zero Harm promotion and are contained somewhere in a policy definition or presented in smaller type on the promotional material. Given its prominence, firms that set Zero Harm as their vision for health and safety will continually fail to meet their stated expectations unless they qualify their vision which then means that the message is compromised.

This is not a defeatist attitude but an acceptance of reality. People will continue to have car accidents despite the huge amounts of money spent to prevent them; people will continue to slip in the shower; people will continue to do stupid things after drinking too much booze; and people will continue to be injured at work. That is why a focus on Zero Harm will fail and nobody realizes this better than the employees at risk of injury since most Zero Harm programs focus on their behavior. The Zero Harm programs researched for this article placed a heavy emphasis on the need for employees’ to modify their behavior rather than redesigning jobs to reduce risk as the primary mechanism for injury reduction. Is it any wonder that employees tend to be cynical towards such programs?

While aspiring to have no workplace injuries is a necessary corporate commitment – after all what other level of workplace injury is acceptable? It is an objective that will always be an aspiration and is therefore meaningless since nobody really expects to achieve it. An alternative is to focus on what is being done to achieve the Zero Harm objective.

Zero Harm 2One firm researched in the preparation of this article demonstrates all of these things. Their publicity prominently displays their commitment to Zero Harm while having a sub-message of “Making Safety Personal”. At the same time their publicity around the program defines harm as:

  • Zero deaths
  • Zero injuries to the public
  • Zero ruined lives among all our people

which is hardly Zero Harm!

Why not have health and safety programs around the concept of “Making Safety Personal” which is an excellent concept in and of itself and provides greater scope for employee involvement? Why refer to Zero Harm at all? It doesn’t add anything other than to promote an unachievable goal.

Zero Harm seems to be the latest buzz word to describe workplace health and safety programs. The hype around the concept is similar to that surrounding “behavioral safety” programs and is reminiscent of the HR catch phrase of the 1980’s and 1990’s of “our people are our most valuable resource”. Firms expounded this corporate value while laying-off huge numbers of employees as they “downsized” justifying this with the claim they were “working smarter not harder” as they strove to be “internationally competitive”. Zero Harm has the same sort of feel. It appears to be little more than a shield presenting an appearance of pro-actively addressing workplace hazards while, in reality, doing very little at all to address the real causes of workplace injury.

In answer to the original question, Zero Harm appears to be little more than marketing hype that will contribute little to reducing the number of workplace injuries and may have the opposite effect due to increased cynicism of employees towards health and safety programs.

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