Zero Harm and A Peasant in 16th Century Europe

by Dave Collins on September 3, 2016

in Zero Harm

Just came across this one from a few years ago, luvved it and felt it should get some more air.

Zero Harm and a peasant in 16th century Europe

Guest article by Paul Nieuwoudt

imageLife today appears to hold some similarity to that of 16th century Europe. Europe in those days was largely dominated by the Roman Catholic church and many governments dared not make any decisions of any significance without the church’s permission. Those governments had cardinals, appointed by the church as their advisors to guide them regarding the instructions and wishes of the church in matters of state.

In those days a controversy was simmering away between the church and scientists. The church fervently held to the belief of geocentrism, teaching that the earth is the center of the solar system. Scientists like Copernicus, and later Galileo, showed through their observations and measurements that the solar system is heliocentric i.e. the sun was at the center.

The church did not tolerate this situation and in 1615 Cardinal Bellarmine wrote a letter to Foscarini (a confidant of Galileo) with words of advice and caution. In that letter he wrote that it is acceptable to say that the sun is the center of the solar system for mathematical purposes only, as long as it is acknowledged that in reality it is obvious that the earth is the center. In 1632 Galileo was brought to trial for his heliocentric leanings and in 1634 was placed under house arrest until his death.

Peasants in those days would have had a difficult time in knowing what to believe. On the one hand, they had the all-powerful church fervently promulgating their belief that the earth was the center, and on the other hand there were the scientists who were showing that the facts point to a different reality. Pity those peasants – who should they believe? The church or the scientists?

Fast forward four hundred years to the present, and the current situation within safety appears to hold close similarities to that 16th century controversy. Today we have the church of Zero Harm fervently proclaiming the Goal of Zero and teaching that all incidents are preventable. References to the “belief in zero harm” make it appear all the more quasi-religious in nature. This church’s cardinals are ubiquitous and can be found in many organizations, boards and elsewhere. These cardinals ensure strict compliance to their doctrine, and do not tolerate the slightest hint of heresy.

Many people of science, psychology and other related disciplines on the other hand are providing a totally different message. These include James Reason, Corrie Pitzer and Robert Long. Through their writings and teachings they are demonstrating that the scientific and psychological facts point to a different reality. They are clearly showing that there are many reasons why the doctrine of Zero harm is baseless.

Once again the ordinary person is confronted with two opposing viewpoints. Who should they place their confidence in; the church of zero harm or science?

It is said that history repeats itself, and I wonder how long it will take before the scientific view prevails.


  • Trevor

    The zero harm or zero injuries is a justifiable goal or objective that should be on everybody’s mind every day, every week. It isn’t a safety system or plan it is a mindset that a business takes which is communicated throughout the company. This is what we stand for and that safety is a business value and not a priority. A priority can and will changed depending on the situation, where a value is there all the time. Well should be anyway. It is saying as a business that our goal is zero harm and we will do what we need to do to achieve this goal. How and what you do is just as important as that objective and maybe that is where business leaders and or safety professionals are lacking. That is the development and delivery of programs that support the objective that is sustainable and not reliant on any one person. Safety is got to do with people and the people factor has a major bearing on the success of a safety management system. You have all the right things in place, but if you don’t have the right mindset or can I say safety behaviour, then you might as well through it all out the window. It is also about setting the standard in your workplace. If you come in with the mindset that injuries are inevitable then that flows through the workplace and defeats your objective of ensuring you have the safest workplace you can have and protecting your employees.

    • Riskex

      Zero Harm should just go without saying – you dont hear Qantas or Toyota spruiking “Zero Crash”, particularly when they know humans are ultimately in control – who would be a customer of theirs with that thought floating around in their subconscious? They do however focus on all of the positive things they do to reduce the risk of crashing to levels as low as possible.

  • Terry Kidd

    I enjoyed the article, read it with a smile on my face, I am with the scientists and have recently been taking a verbal battering from many in-house church zealots spruiking the corporate line. What saddens me is that they refuse to think, and refuse to communicate and consult (which includes listen) but they will tell you that they do.

  • Like the comparison but don’t think it equates.
    Zero harm is a goal, not the centre of all things in safety. Unobtainable in the true sense (year in, year out) but every day you don’t have an injury, or damage equipment or the environment, you have achieved Zero Harm for the day. The use of Zero harm is no worse or better than safety observations or a range of other tools that organisations run which sound good but in reality achieve little.
    It is not the concept but the zealots that don’t ubderstand it. The unfortunate thing I see is that we have trained up a breed of safety people who are maintainers, not innovators due to their lack of overall knowledge. We try to make safety a profession but when you get idiots who get into senior roles with at best a cert4, or at worst, nothing but industy experience who publicly state if you cannot do risk assessments in your head, you shouldn’t be working underground. Don’t get me started!!!
    Until we make safety a value (not a priority), Zero Harm as a slogan and measure will stay.

  • Hi Paul, love it, and of course appeals to my background in theology and church history. Please email me if you don’t have a copy of my latest book For the Love of Zero, Human Fallibility and Risk (happy to give you one). There is a section in it on fundamentalism and zero advocacy.

  • Clever article, I go with the scientists.

  • Glen

    Astonishing views and one i share similar beliefs to history repeats itself. Power and Control are the 2 elements that remain at the heart of all deceptions.

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