More companies are signing up to the zero harm concept – but is it achievable, or could its pursuit lead to undesired behaviours? Peter Crush investigates.
It’s enshrined in law, but the belief that employees should expect to go to work and leave again without being harmed is one that is deeply held by safety professionals. ‘No one should be hurt at work,’ says Angela Gray, senior OSH specialist at IOSH.
Zero harm has been gaining currency – adopted as it is by the likes of the global manufacturer Siemens and infrastructure firm Balfour Beatty (see Safety strategy, overleaf). ‘We’ve had the concept of “zero defects” in quality management since the 1960s, and momentum for zero harm in OSH has grown as corporate social responsibility and health and safety have become ever more linked,’ says Gerard Zwetsloot, a member of the Vision Zero network, a global campaign for zero accidents, diseases and harm at work.
Zero harm is the pursuit of a no harm or fatalities at work policy. Some say it is a noble ambition, but it also has its critics. ‘It’s a gimmick. It’s unachievable and we should all acknowledge this,’ says John McNamee CMIOSH, co-founder and principal consultant of Ravensdale Health, Safety and Wellbeing.
Chief among the criticisms of the term is the extent to which it is regarded as merely an ambition or something that is genuinely thought to be possible. ‘To me, it’s not achievable. Companies are 100% fooling themselves. And, if they’re pursuing it, they know it really isn’t possible,’ explains John. ‘I know why they have it – it sounds better than having a policy called “Hurting fewer people” – but being incident-free just isn’t achievable.’
Some say that they support zero harm as an aspiration because with it comes change. ‘The language companies use and the attitudes and behaviours they want employees to aspire to matter,’ says Angela. ‘It can be an acknowledgement by companies that they have a journey to go on, and their mantra is to drive towards zero harm.’
However, ‘firms need to be careful that they are not striving for something that staff themselves don’t think is possible,’ she adds.
Wayne Turner CMIOSH, managing director of WT Consultancy, likes the idea of striving for zero harm, but believes that, by and large, it may not be possible. ‘We are expected to reduce risk to a level as low as is reasonably practicable, not necessarily remove it altogether,’ he says. ‘Simply implementing a policy doesn’t change the culture around risk. You need to fully engage with competent colleagues and, together, sufficiently manage hazards.’
Explore the sections of the IOSH competency framework relevant to this article:
- Core: leadership and management
- Technical: culture, risk management
- Behavioural: communication, working with others
- Culture: communication, working with others.
You can find the framework at iosh.com/my-iosh/competency-framework
Perhaps the worse criticism is that zero harm could create negative behaviours, such as under-reporting of minor incidents in the name of target-chasing. ‘We run a real risk of under-reporting if zero harm is not properly supervised,’ says Wayne.
Some have observed this happening. ‘I know that, in organisations I’ve worked for, there’s been a glossing over of some incidents,’ says Nigel Wilkinson, senior UK and international health and safety consultant specialist at health and safety consultancy Arinite. He recalls posters proudly listing the ‘number of days without accidents’, but that’s something he says could deter reporting.
‘I’ve always avoided putting metrics against zero harm,’ says Angela, ‘because, if you’re pursuing zero harm properly, you should actually see a rise in accidents due to a change in culture around reporting.’ Where there is consensus is on the need to be clear about what zero harm means. ‘When you say zero harm, you think of a KPI [key performance indicator] for “no accidents”,’ says Ruth Wilkinson, IOSH head of policy. ‘So it would be useful for organisations to clarify their meaning and use of “zero harm”.’
She adds: ‘What organisations need is good OSH leadership and practice, which includes a good management system. Initiatives such as the International Social Security Association’s Vision Zero believe all accidents, diseases and harm at work are preventable, but when you look at the narrative, the action to be taken is much more than having a KPI for zero accidents.’
Balfour Beatty: ‘Zero incidents is absolutely possible’
Zero harm has been a part of Balfour Beatty’s Build to Last strategy for continuous improvement since 2014. ‘Safe is one of the strategic five pillars (the others being Lean, Expert, Trusted and Sustainable),’ says Lee Hewitt, the firm’s UK health, safety and environment director, ‘and it is our guiding principle for keeping our people safe and well.’
‘We’ve set our bar at this,’ he explains. ‘Is it a target? No. Is it a vision? Yes. But is it also an ambition we feel is possible to achieve? Absolutely. We feel that if you can achieve zero harm on one project, you can do it on another. Over time and on a project-by-project basis, zero harm is eminently possible. It’s a journey we’re on and one where we strive to be incrementally better each time.’
Lee does not worry about under-reporting. ‘We don’t set any zero LTI [lost time injury] targets, and we make it clear we want to learn.’ He accepts others may not agree. ‘We all want our people to go home safely, but we believe we hold a different viewpoint on how we implement it,’ he says.
Lee argues the policy works: ‘Since we formalised zero harm, group-wide LTI rates have fallen from 0.29% in 2014 to 0.13%.’
Ruth argues that any communication needs to link back to the values and beliefs of the organisation, ‘which should be about protecting workers and preventing harm and the action that is being taken’. It’s a view widely supported. ‘You can’t manage outcomes; you can only manage processes,’ says Gerard. He believes companies should not set targets – or even bonuses linked to zero targets. ‘This would be an implementation failure of zero harm. It’s why I like the idea of Vision Zero in the first place. A vision can never be a target.’
Nigel says communication is again key: ‘Zero harm should be more about educating employees on safe ways to work,’ he says. ‘This would also contextualise it better for SMEs [small- to medium-sized enterprises]. These are the dominant employers and, while big companies can create a slogan, smaller companies need something they can work with.’ He says aiming for fewer injuries under an umbrella of training and learning is a better way for SMEs to implement fewer, not zero, accidents.
‘Effort should be targeted at getting employees to report what’s going on,’ says Angela. She thinks a management system approach that says it is aspiring to zero harm is what is needed. ‘Good management is generally what brings accidents down, and people must believe it can be achieved.’
HSE. (2022) Health and safety at work: Summary statistics for Great Britain 2022 (accessed 4 January 2023)