A zero-harm programme won't protect you from the worst

Former editor, IOSH Magazine

One size seldom fits all. And one approach to harm reduction is unlikely to eliminate risk, however ambitious its scope and thorough its execution.

Recognising that fact spurred specialist metals multinational Johnson Matthey, whose occupational health director Don Harrison features in our leader interview this month to action last year.

Though its zero-harm programme was reducing accidents and illness, Johnson Matthey’s group environment, health and safety team took time out to draw up new procedures for the company’s tasks which, however infrequent, risked the severest injury. The team then audited the group’s plants worldwide to check they were upholding the revised standards.

The drinks maker Diageo went through a similar process when it rea lised its zero-accidents initiative, which, like Johnson Matthey’s was bringing down the injury total, had made no dent in its fatality rate.

As Diageo’s governance manager, Aidan O’Donnell, put it: “The saying that if you look after the pennies the pounds look after themselves is not true in this case.”

Its response was to develop a “severe and fatal incident prevention programme” with new rules controlling high-hazard activities such as work at height and workplace transport. These instructions were supported by increased funding for controls, including access equipment for work at heights over 2 m. They were also strictly enforced, without the “hearts and minds” approach often used to encourage safe behaviour when the stakes are lower.

The positive effect of the intervention on the major and fatal injury rate was almost immediate.

But it’s easy to see how so many organisations have come to concentrate on counting the pennies.

Almost 100 years ago Herbert William Heinrich proposed the theory that for every 330 incidents involving workplace hazards, 300 will result in no harm, 29 will produce minor injuries and one a major injury or death.

There have been variants and refinements by other academics to this ratio – often represented a s a triangle with the near-misses at the base and the single serious injury a t the apex – proposing ratios that vary by industry or by hazard. Some have questioned whether the theory has any validity (the source of Heinrich’s data is obscure), but it has stuck in the minds of many OSH practitioners.

It seems sensible that “sweating the small stuff”, driving down minor accidents and near-misses, should not only cut total injury rates but should also drain the reservoir of hazardous acts that allows the worst to happen occasiona lly when all the gaps in an organisation’s protective measures align.

But the experience of Diageo and others is that it’s an approach that fails to deliver results where they are most critical.

Work to minimise low-level incidents is no bad thing but, if you make major hazard controls wait on it, you might be living on borrowed time.


Louis Wustemann is former editor, IOSH Magazine. He was previously editor of Health and Safety at Work magazine and Environment in Business. He has written, edited and consulted on health and safety, environmental and employment matters for more than 25 years.


  • Thank you for this article

    Permalink Submitted by Paul Thompson (119335) on 26 April 2016 - 10:11 am

    Thank you for this article Louis, I concur. I think you are also being a little kind to the zero-harm programme advocates too. May I add that such programmes can be costly, disproportionate and counter productive as well as endorsing unrealistic expectations that can have negative effects on reporting and culture in the long run. The unintended consequences from such programmes can have a negative cultural effect on an organisation. I also think F Bird was misunderstood. The premise that low risk events can accumulate to greater significant events is flawed. Sadly, in my opinion, this premise can lead to a short term, lower cost strategy and a single minded approach which compromises the significant low frequency high consequence risks, and adversely affects a proper hierarchy of control strategy and Company liability.

  • Glad to see the other side of

    Permalink Submitted by Robert Skinner on 11 May 2016 - 03:39 pm

    Glad to see the other side of the argument for a change.

  • Dear Louis,

    Permalink Submitted by Keith Scott on 18 May 2016 - 01:31 pm

    Dear Louis,
    Great article and thought provoking too.
    The problem that I have witnessed in interpreting the H. Heinrich triangle is that some people are tempted to start from the bottom up, which seems the intuitive place to start. Indeed, when you read supporting narrative it usually points people in that direction by stating ‘if you reduce the low level hazards then the high level will be reduced as a result etc.’ So our heads are turned in the wrong direction.

    In my experience our efforts should be across the levels of significance at the same time and not just working in one direction of travel, up or down Heinrich’s triangle. The quick wins can be found at each level and can generate positive results for little input. However, resource deployment should be concentrated on the reduction of high hazard events. After all paper cuts we can live whilst death on the other hand, we can’t.

    For example, I have found that identifying the anaylsing the organisations risk profile and then targeting the top five hazards makes good business sense and easily gains support as proportionate and risk based spending. The aim is to reduce fatalities or catastrophic business losses. Senior managers are more willing to support those interventions aimed at reducing the top five hazards in their company because the potential benefits are more significant.

    At the same time raising awareness of the lower level events need not incur major costs but can be targeted by campaigns and proactive actions such as observations walk through risk assessments and inspections etc. This joined up approach generates a good conversation around H&S which usually leads to a ‘feel good’ factor that everyone is concerned about H&S because it can be ‘felt’ at each level.

    Don’t get me started on Zero harm......
    All the best

  • Dear Louis,

    Permalink Submitted by Keith Scott on 18 May 2016 - 01:43 pm

    Dear Louis,
    The Heinrich triangle approach falls over in my mind because of the issue of the cause of an accident. The cause of a paper cut or similar low level event has not been the cause of a fatality or high level loss event.
    If you remove the cause or unsafe conditions which lead to paper cuts, then you reduce or remove the incidents of paper cuts etc.
    If on the other hand you remove the cause or unsafe conditions which lead to fatalities, then you reduce or remove the incidents of fatalities.
    Therefore there is no connection.
    Best regards


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