What we say matters: Zero and other Aspirations

by Dave Collins on April 7, 2017

in Zero Harm

Latest by WHS Lawyer Greg Smith and co-author of Risky Conversations, The Law, Social Psychology and Risk.

What we say matters: Zero and other Aspirations – First Published Here

imageIt seems hardly a day goes by without social media raising a new discussion about the merits or otherwise of “Zero Harm”.

As I understand the various arguments “for” and “against”, there seemed to be three broad categories of argument (although I do not discount further or additional arguments).

One argument says that Zero Harm is not a target, or a goal, rather it is an aspiration – something to pursue.  If I may be so bold as to paraphrase Prof Andrew Hopkins, it is like a state of grace – something to be striven for, but never truly achieved.

Another argument, more of a middle ground, articulates that Zero Harm is “okay”, but may have an unintended consequence of driving adverse behaviour.  In particular, it is argued that Zero Harm causes individuals and organisations to hide incidents or manipulate injury data in support of an organisation’s “zero” targets.

Yet another argument says that the language of zero is totally corrosive and destructive.  It argues  the language of zero  – amongst other things – primes a discourse that is anti-learning and anti-community (See, For the Love of Zero by Dr Robert Long).

I would like to use this article to discuss two matters.  First, the Safety Paradox in the context of aspirational statements, only using “zero” as a starting example.  Second, to demonstrate how aspirational statements can be used against organisations.  Both these points are closely related but ultimately, I want to argue whatever your “aspirations” you need to have “assurance” about the effect they have on your business.

The Safety Paradox is a concept I have been exploring for some time now.  The Safety Paradox supposes that our safety initiatives have within them the potential to improve safety and cause harm.

In my view, the single biggest weakness in modern safety management is the assumption that safety management initiatives are “good“.  I have no doubt that the proponents of Zero Harm suffer from this assumption.

The question of whether Zero Harm is good or bad is, on one view, totally irrelevant.  If you are a Zero Harm organisation the only thing that really matters is the impact Zero Harm has in your workplace.

  • What is the purpose of Zero Harm in your organisation?
  • How do you demonstrate that Zero Harm achieves this purpose?
  • How do you evidence that Zero Harm does not undermine safety in the way that many commentators suggest?

My personal experience with Zero Harm means that I remain unconvinced of its benefits, but I do not feel I am closed to being persuaded otherwise, it is just that I have never worked with an organisation that has been able to address the three questions proposed above.  Moreover, in my experience, there is usually a significant disconnect between corporate intentions and operational reality: What management think is going on is often very different from what the workforce believes.

Considering all the published criticism of Zero Harm as a concept, I do not think it is unfair that the onus should be on Zero Harm organisations – including government regulators – to demonstrate that Zero Harm achieves its intended purpose and does not have a negative impact on safety.

Now, this is more than a matter of semantics.  Aspirational statements can, and are used against individuals and organisations.

On 21 August 2009 and uncontrolled release of hydrocarbons occurred on the West Atlas drilling rig operating off the North-West coast of Australia.  The incident reawakened the Australian Public to the dangers of offshore oil and gas production, leading to a Commission of Inquiry into the event.

During the Commission the aspirational statements of one organisation was used against an individual.  The criticism was that a contractor had removed a piece of safety critical hardware, but not replaced it, and had not been directed by the relevant individual to replace it.

There was some discussion about a presentation provided by the organisation, and that resulted in the following exchange.

Montara slide

Q: All right. If the operator could go to page 0004 of this document, that overhead, which is part of the induction training of drilling supervisors, is entitled “Standards”. Do you see that?

A: Yes.

Q: If you could read what is said there, you would agree it captures, if you like, a profound truth?

A: Yes.

Q: Do you agree that that is a truth not simply applicable to drilling supervisors but also applicable to PTT management onshore?

A: Yes.

Q: I want to suggest to you, sir, that your decision not to instruct Mr O’Shea or Mr Wishart to reinstall the 9-5/8″ PCC represents a very significant departure from what is described on that screen.

A: Yes, I can concede that.

Q: Without wishing to labour the point, your decision not to insist upon the reinstallation of the 9-5/8″ PCC was a failure in both leadership and management on your part?

A: Yes, that’s what it seems now.

Q: With respect, sir, I’m suggesting to you that, faced with the circumstances you were, your deference, as it were, to not treading on the toes of the rig personnel and insisting on the reinstallation was, at that point in time, a failure in leadership and management on your part.

A: I will accept that.

How many of these untested platitudes infect organisations, waiting for the opportunity to expose the business to ridicule and criticism?

Or consider if you will, the following scenario. An employee is dismissed for breaching mobile phone requirements when his mobile phone was found in the cabin of the truck he had been operating.

The employee bought an unfair dismissal claim and the presiding tribunal found that there was a valid reason to terminate his employment.  However, the tribunal also found that the termination was unfair for several procedural reasons. In part, the tribunal relied on the level of training and information that the employee had been provided about the relevant procedure.

The training documentation provided did not clearly demonstrate that employees were trained in this new procedure and signed accordingly, or that it was given a significant roll-out to employees commensurate with their ‘zero tolerance’ attitude to incidents of breaches, given how this case has been pursued (my emphasis added).

If you are going to have a “Zero” aspiration, that has to be reflected in your business practices. It seldom is.

What I think these examples illustrate is an inherent weakness in the way health and safety is managed.  We, as an industry, are overwhelmingly concerned with “how” we manage health and safety risks without paying anything like enough attention to whether the “how” works.

Do all of our aspirations and activities actually manage health and safety risks, or are we just keep keeping people busy or worse, wasting their time?  As importantly, how do we know our initiatives are not part of the problem?

Baker panel reviewBP’s corporate management mandated numerous initiatives that applied to the U.S. refineries and that, while well-intentioned, have overloaded personnel at BP’s U.S. refineries. This “initiative overload” may have undermined process safety performance at the U.S. refineries. (The Report of the BP US Refineries Independent Safety Review Panel (Baker Panel Review), page xii).

There is no doubt that safety is not the only management discipline that suffers from these deficiencies: “style over substance” and “window dressing”.  But if we claim the high moral ground of protecting human health and life, then perhaps the onus on us to show what we do works, is also higher.

  • Bernard Corden

    Professor Cross and Ross Trethewy (2002) sum the issue up as follows “Current practice in risk assessment is highly unreliable…. a simple qualitative description of magnitude of risk does not perform the function (of requiring mangers to understand and take responsibility for the risks in their workplace)… Legislation requires employers to eliminate hazards and minimise all risks to health and safety. Ranking risks is an administrative convenience to allow a sensible consideration of where to start when a range of actions are required, but it has become the core of OHS risk management activity….”
    The purpose of a ranking tool is to draw attention to the most important risks and to risks that might need more detailed analysis. Ranking is a starting point for analysis not the end result

  • Paul Ince

    Would Zero Harm have a better chance of working if it was used as the context for the risk assessment? Our current safety risk assessment process doesn’t talk about context at all. Our process for risk assessment talks about assessing the risk of the “most likely injury” “taking account of existing controls”. This approach leads to quite low scores on our matrix and subsequently everyone feels comfortable doing high risk work, the illusion is a success. To make our Zero Harm commitment a little more ‘real’ perhaps an assessment of the risk of ‘any’ harm would generate higher scores and perhaps lead to higher order controls. There would need to be stricter guidance about which score means work can proceed though. Our current matrix says that if a ‘minor’ injury is ‘almost certain’ this is a medium risk and ‘work can proceed’. To me this doesn’t gel at all with Zero Harm, either as an aspirational target or a number to achieve.

    • The risk assessment matrix system has many inherent flaws, the lack of context in the process has also long been one of my concerns along with a lack of consideration for the by-products and additional risks that any controls may lead to. Have a read of this one: https://www.safetyrisk.net/calculators-matrices-and-mumbo-jumbo-risk-assessment/

    • At a safety conference in 2012, Norman Ritchie made that exact point – Zero harm and any risk assessment contradicts each other. If Zero Harm really wanted zero, there would not have been such a thing as “acceptable risk”. For Zero, the only acceptable level of risk is “no risk”. I tend to agree with Norman.

  • Bernard Corden

    Here is another interesting paper featuring the views of Norwegian seafarers and the legitimacy of safety management systems and bureaucratization of safety:


    Well worth reading

    • Dave Collins

      Hah! They have to turn on a light to complete the night navigation checklist and this ruins their night vision…….all the extra paperwork causes fatigue ……..etc etc

    • Rob Long

      Great paper Bernard, Thanks.

      • Bernard Corden

        Dear Rob,

        The book detailed in the references from Ashgate by Bourrier and Bieder entitled Trapping Safety into Rules:How desirable or avoidable is proceduralisation, also looks interesting.

  • Bernard Corden

    Corporate language is pure Orwellian Newspeak. It is designed to make lies sound truthful, murder respectful and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind

  • Rob Long

    It’s strange all this talk of aspiration occurs as if the language itself is neutral. All language carries a value with it. The language of zero primes a culture to collectively and unconsciously accept numerics as valid mode of goal setting. All language of goals also carries with it a psychology of goals and in the case of zero a psychology of absolutes and perfection. The semiotics of zero also commits organizations to a binary understanding of reality and a simplistic understanding of reality and this is evident in the way risk is tackled. Safety then carries on in this simplistic frame wondering why it never gets to zero and when it does drives an arrogance that blinds the culture to risk. Unless Safety decides to get more sophisticated and intelligent about risk then we will keep getting this nonsense from NSW Transport and crazy binary thinking such as: what is a satisfactory number for fatalities? Really, when will Safety stop being so dumb?

    • Bernard Corden

      Dear Rob,

      The WorkSafe NSW 2014/5 annual report makes interesting reading, especially pp 4-5. When you are hit with hard statistics it is so obvious that they have been manipulated to meet defined targets. Statistics often conceal more than they reveal:


      Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and Anthony Burgess must be turning in their graves. Much of what they predicted is coming to fruition.

      The money the UK is pouring into eugenics research is quite frightening:


      • Just a big pile of BS meaningless numbers – the presentation is wonderful however – such a lovely shade of puce for their puke

        • Rob Long

          and when you actually go into the field and talk to people the stories of bullying (and in their own ranks) and mental game playing are enormous. http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/bullying-claims-against-workcover-nsw-20130701-2p7gs.html

          • Oh but Rob – in their profile photos they come across as such a lovely, normal, down to earth, empathetic, unselfish, warm, caring bunch of friendly people……….oops sorry got confused with the actors they hired for the photo shoot…….

          • Bernard Corden

            Socially autistic psychopaths would be a more appropriate description

          • I love their terminology: “strategic prosecutions for non-compliance with work health and safety legislation” – one can only imagine what it would take to rise and be “successful” there……….

          • There are significant gaps in any organisations between the ‘official version’ and what is actually happening on the ground. I have lost count of the number of times that individuals have posted stories about what is actually happening and people who have contacted me to discuss how they are really being treated. In some organisations it appears to be worse than others. In some situations, it has been very clearly explained to me in these terms “As a worker in this organisation, you are to follow your manager/supervisors instructions even if they are wrong and you know them to be wrong.” A CEO also said when told of a bullying situation “If you put bullying on your claim, we won’t investigate it, you need to put something else”. According to ‘official data’, the incidence of bullying is not out of control. However, when one considers the rate, prevalence, frequency and severity of bullying across the public and private sector as it applies to unreported bullying, one should be concerned. As many have indicated, ‘denial is not a river in Egypt’. However, by denying the extent of the problem, is to deny that one has an obligation to provide a safe working environment when it comes to the prevention, detection, reporting and resolution of bullying. Bullying costs everyone of us – when it occurs in the public sector – taxpayers get to pick up the tab, and in the private sector, the costs are passed on to consumers/customers. The economics is such that decision makers don’t appear to want to accept that in some organisations, depending on numbers of employees and cost data, it could be costing in the vicinity of $1billion per annum.

      • Rob Long

        Bernard, the ideology of numerics and mechanics are the driving force of safety, as your evidence demonstrates. Moreso, is there one safety advisor out there who doesn’t have to report on LTIs and TRIFR each month as a mandated essential of their job? The look at the curriculum for WHS. I have not found one course anywhere here or Internationally that doesn’t normalise these ideologies of numerics and mechanics, an engineers dream. What a shame that they don’t know that all speculations about numerics and mechanics are a subjective attribution based on a worldview that makes of them what it wants to suit its assumptions. Imagine if Safety people had to read Kuhn or Feyerbend, Foucault or Derrida, Slovic or Sunstein? OMG, their world would fall apart. No, rather, they might then just realise that all this numerics and dare I say seduction into eugenics is a dangerous ideology that regardless of blind intent, leads to dehumanisation and depersonalisation in outcomes. Strange, when you look at the semiotics of the report you see these strange mixed messages of eugenics in the name of care, numerics backed onto images of people. More evidence of how Safety sustains this bi-polar binary mentalitie justifying harm in the name of zero harm. In this way you can spin care in return to work which is the most toxic sector of all. Hey, but the mission says we ‘protect, insure and care’ which is spin for ‘police, persecute and harm’. By page 17 you get some beautiful spin in the infinity image of having a ‘social heart’ and a commercial mind yet this report started with 2 full pages of semiotics on numerics!!! After that I couldn’t read much more, a well crafted glossy document to the binary bipolar reality of safety.

        • Bernard Corden

          Ironically, eugenics is the skeleton in the cupboard of the left and was advocated by several early members of the Fabian society, including George Bernard Shaw, Harold Laski and John Maynard Keynes.
          I can recall a quote from CP Snow in his excellent book The Physicists. He claimed the 20th century belonged to the physicists and the next century will belong to the geneticists.
          The sociopolitical aspects pertaining to OHS are quite fascinating and has recently had me thumbing through Twaney’s Religion and The Rise of Captitalism.

        • Bernard Corden

          The photos featuring the contented horticultural workers and effervescent hairdresser are insidious, especially when you delve into the emerging gig economy and proliferation of contingent employment arrangements.
          The cover on the next edition should feature ebullient exploited 7-11 employees. The rise of neoliberalism has generated Dickensian working arrangements and the ideology of Newman, Barnett, Baird and Abbott is evident across Australia and acolytes such as Stephen Harper in Canada have created similar conditions overseas
          Australia only recently ratified the ILO convention # 155 in 2004 and the Howard government did not provide a representative to the ILO in Geneva.
          If you take the exact opposite stance to their mission statements, vision and values it would provide you with a much more truthful version of what is actually happening at an operational level.
          It is hardly surprising we have witnessed a resurgence of black lung in the Queensland mining industry and it is only a matter of time before there is another major mining disaster in Australia.
          Quite recently at a NSW underground mine many employees remained underground and were exposed to flammable concentrations of methane following failure of the ventilation system.
          I can also recall working on a particular project and the three fundamental tenets at a strategic level stated:

          People are the solution
          Safety is the presence of positives
          Safety is an ethical responsibility downwards, not bureaucratic

          At an operational level the organisation implemented SWMSs, JSEAs, THAs and a take five process. This was supplemented by a permit to work process for nominated high risk activities
          A behavioural safety program was also implemented and site supervisors were publicly named and shamed at weekly meetings for finding insufficient unsafe behaviours during their allocated safety observations

          This was termed safety differently.

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