Z is for zero harm

The vision of zero harm, in which no one has an accident or contracts a disease or illness because of work, applies to staff and contractors as well as to customers and the public.

Lexicon -Z-is-for-zero-harm
Image credit: ©iStock/Ludmila_m

Its advocates argue it is the only target an organisation should set. The argument against setting such a stringent objective is that it implies anything short of perfection is unacceptable and may lead to a sense of demoralisation when even a minor injury is sustained. This would also increase the likelihood of under-reporting and reduce opportunities to learn from incidents.

Safety and health law in the UK is based on the concept of reasonably practicable controls (see A is for ALARP, bit.ly/2lIJS7R). Resources are finite; therefore, as long as the risk is tolerable, the cost of further reducing risk can be weighed against the benefit to be gained. Decisions about spending on railways or road transport in the UK set a “value of fatality prevented” (currently around £1.9m). If spending £1.9m or less can prevent a (statistical) fatality, it should be spent – but if the cost of saving a (hypothetical) life is £19m, it can be argued that the cost outweighs the benefit (see D is for disproportion, bit.ly/2AcU5O4).

The rhetoric of zero harm can miss this essential, sometimes unpalatable truth, that we do accept a level of risk for a societal benefit. For example, when the guide to the global Vision Zero campaign, launched at last September’s World Congress on Safety and Health at Work (http://visionzero.global), claims that all accidents of occupational disease are preventable, the ALARP question is “at what cost?”.

The Vision Zero guide includes the requirement that risk assessments take account not just of reasonably foreseeable risks but of “all possible risks and hazards”. Such a requirement feeds the concerns of one of the critics of zero harm, Sidney Dekker, who describes how it has led to “excessive quantification and bureaucratization of safety [...] and the unfocused spending of investigative resources and improvement initiatives” (bit.ly/2AwDV7c).

John Green, group safety director at construction giant Laing O’Rourke, has worked with Dekker. Though Green is more understanding of the value that zero harm initiatives can provide, he moved the contractor on to Dekker’s “safety differently” agenda, arguing that: “Zero harm has done a great job, but its time is done.”

A flaw of zero harm was to think that eliminating minor accidents would correlate with the prevention of major accidents or fatalities (see N is for near miss, bit.ly/2DZQjKb). Green says that accidents are inevitable, so Laing O’Rourke now focuses on controlling the severe safety and health hazards and gives the workers more influence over determining how work is done.

If the only measured target is zero harm, there is a sense that an organisation is setting itself up for failure

Laing O’Rourke is not alone in making this transition. Sustainable technologies firm Johnson Matthey and alcoholic drinks producer Diageo both had zero-harm initiatives (bit.ly/1YlFFSr) but, though the number of injuries decreased, fatality rates were unaffected. Like Laing O’Rourke, they now focus on ensuring high-risk tasks are carried out safely.

On the Thames Tideway website (www.tideway.london) early documents (2014) inherited from Thames Water pledged: “All works described [here] are to be managed and performed to meet the health and safety vision of ‘Zero Incidents, Zero Harm, Zero Compromise’.” However, its website now advocates the strategy of “The Right Way”, whose goals are to have no “major incidents” and to promote new standards of occupational health (see Tideway feature, IOSH Magazine February 2018 issue).

Other organisations continue to advocate zero harm. Energy company EDF Energy’s website (www.edfenergy.com) explains that, after ten years of zero harm, it has become “part of our culture and the way we operate”. However, the company’s target is not zero but to remain better than the industry average. Its reported incident rate has reduced over time, but this has not been a reason to lose focus on the key risks.

Infrastructure multinational Balfour Beatty also qualifies its zero-harm goals. Heather Bryant, director of health, safety and sustainability, says: “Although ‘zero harm’ is the slogan, Balfour Beatty focuses on controlling significant risks through a high level of employee engagement and empowerment. Zero harm presents a culture, not a set of unprioritised measures.”

If the only measured target is zero harm, there is a sense that an organisation is setting itself up for failure. However, organisations such as Balfour Beatty and EDF Energy have successfully driven down accidents using zero harm as a vision, but with a clear road map, monitored with leading measures of success and a focus on severe hazards. Like the slogan “safety is our first priority”, zero harm might be a way of improving engagement, but it is not something organisations would want to go out of business over.  



Bridget Leathley is a freelance health and safety consultant, providing risk management support in facilities, retail and office environments.  She delivers face-to-face safety training including IOSH and bespoke courses, and contributes to e-learning courses through evaluations and design work.  She has been writing for health and safety publications since 1996.  


  • Zero harm doesn't half take

    Permalink Submitted by Mike Collins on 31 January 2018 - 05:37 pm

    Zero harm doesn't half take some knocking from people who think it's a measure of safety performance, clearly it's not. A zero harm approach was explained to me many years ago as moving people's belief from an accident inevitability mindset (measuring number of accidents and setting an 'improving' target) to an all accidents are preventable mindset. I recently asked a senior executive if he was happy with a target of injuring 8 people this year, his target...... He started to tell me it was a 10% improvement on 2016/7 and then he realised what he was saying, he was planning to fail, miserably, 8 times in one year. If you plan to have 8 accidents a year then 'inevitably' you'll have 8, unfortunately it's how the human brain works, it's got a target and nobody will worry if we only have 7.
    Thinking and acting in this way it is clear that Zero Harm is about decisions, behaviours, beliefs and attitudes. I regularly hear my clients asking fellow attendees at meetings 'is that a zero harm decision/action', they are consistently questioning whether they are leading by example and operating the business in line with their zero harm values. I thought we'd left behind the numbers aspect of zero harm years ago, but maybe not. Any other target for accidents is criminal neglect and will result in you having an inevitable accident mindset permanently. We should quit measuring ourselves in negative ways and start measuring positive issues.


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