Zero harm is not achievable

“Do I believe in the concept of Zero Harm? Let’s just say I believe that nothing is impossible” – Dave Collins

“What a strange sense of logic to fixate on the absence of something (injury) as a demonstration of the presence of something else (safety). Such a proposition misunderstands the dynamic of risk and being human.” – Dr Robert Long – 2014

Having spent 20 years as an Army Officer, including a six-month deployment to Iraq, I find the concept of ‘zero harm’ to be almost nonsensical.  It is not possible in the military, and it is certainly not possible in many of the companies that have adopted this mantra, including mining operations, railway companies, construction companies and airlines, to maintain zero harm.

“But it is just an aspirational goal” safety staff have told me when I have criticised the principle.  But here is my problem: why aspire to something that is absolutely, positively unachievable.  It is as unachievable as the Victorian Government’s goal of a road toll of zero.

What is more concerning, is when organisations link bonuses for executives to safety performance which can lead to under-reporting.  So yes, the statistics look good, but it is disguising the true state of safety management.

In a presentation to the 2014 OHS Leader’s Summit in Queensland the causes and outcomes of The Pike River Tragedy in New Zealand were discussed at length by Hans Buwalda, the Group Manager, Environment, Health & Safety, of Fletcher Building (a New Zealand based building and civil works company). Mr Buwalda stated:

“Zero harm can lead to organisations not placing enough focus on managing significant hazards. If they focus on trying to stop all injuries, then they are not likely to take a risk-based approach. One consequence is a Pike River type outcome; that is, no minor injuries, then suddenly, a very significant incident that leads to serious or fatal injuries.”

Improvements will be reflected in the legislation which will take heed to the real fact that hazards and risks cannot be completely eliminated. OHS leaders in New Zealand need to focus on managing these so that, as far as reasonably practicable, we are preventing people from being seriously or fatally injured.

Fletcher Building for instance has shifted our focus from reducing injury rates to improving our controls on our significant hazards. We have also improved reporting to the Board and are engaging with the Board on safety risk management.[1]

While ever we focus on the low-level consequence risks, our gaze and attention is not firmly on ensuring that the controls associated with the highest consequence risks are effective.

Zero harm is not achievable, but zero major injuries or deaths may be; if the effectiveness of the controls associated with the highest consequence risks are maintained.

[1] safetyrisk.net/zero-harm-takes-the-focus-off-risk-management

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