Zero-injury goal unrealistic, even harmful

Real safety goal should be: ‘At the end of the day, everyone gets to go home’
By Rob Stewart
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/29/2008

The zero-employee-accident objective is so embedded in the corporate mindset that it is difficult to challenge without being burned at the stake for heresy.

But the notion of zero injuries must be challenged because, despite its widespread adoption, it has had little impact on reducing fatality rates, as evidenced by Alberta reporting a 24-per-cent increase in workplace deaths in 2007.

The basic premise behind zero-employee-incidents is that if it is possible to go one day without an injury-causing incident, then it is possible to have two days without incident. Two days can become a week, a week can turn into months and months can become years.

The Employer Safety Guidebook to Zero Employee Injury

, written by Emmitt Nelson, asserts that management must believe this is possible. But this is analogous to telling someone that because they won the lottery one day, they will continue to win it every week, provided they believe in it strongly enough. As with winning the lottery, the reason for going a day without an employee incident, in most cases, has more to do with luck than it does with any concerted effort.

Fundamental flaw

A fundamental problem with the zero-accident objective is it assumes that, just because a person is hurt, the event itself is severe. This assumption leads to a failure to systematically seek out high-risk hazards — those that can cause serious harm but haven’t yet resulted in an injury. This problem is further reinforced when low employee-injury statistics are used to measure the success of how well the safety program is functioning and this success is rewarded through management bonuses.

Industry standard performance metrics are based on personal injury statistics and total recordable incident rates. The success or failure of a safety program is measured by this statistic and, in some industries, it is a factor on which multi-million-dollar contracts are won or lost. In these cases, people literally can die because of management’s reliance on this statistic. It puts too much emphasis on events that caused an injury, no matter how minor, while a near hit, that by luck was not catastrophic, is ignored.

Employees in safety-sensitive positions know it is not possible to achieve zero incidents, so when management tells them this is the objective they have a hard time buying into it. They know that if they are hammering nails all day long, one day they will miss and hit their thumb. They may not like it, but they still get to go home at the end of the day.

Disproportionate response to minor risks

Given the zero-incident objective, there is often an inappropriate and disproportionate reaction to such relatively minor, acceptable-risk events. This response leads to a fear of reporting, which further erodes the integrity of the safety program and can lead to more critical incidents as seen in the explosion at the BP America oil refinery in Texas City, just south of Houston. The 2005 explosion killed 15 workers and injured 180.

The report following the investigation into the explosion found workers perceived the managers as “too worried about high-occurrence and low-consequence events,” such as twisting a knee getting out of a truck, and too little about the danger of hazards that may have a low occurrence rate but result in serious harm, such as inappropriate use of overhead cranes. This reliance on the low personal injury rate as a safety indicator failed to provide a true picture of safety performance and the health of the safety culture.

The report also found personnel were not encouraged to report safety problems and some feared retaliation for doing so. The lessons from incidents and near-misses, therefore, were generally not captured or acted upon.

Proponents of zero-employee-incidents say all incidents are preventable so the goal is to prevent these events from occurring in the future. But is it in an organization’s best interests to prevent all high-occurring, low-consequence events?

Take an incident of an employee slipping and falling on the stairs. If the incident occurred at work and resulted in an injury, it would be classified as a workplace injury and, in the zero incident paradigm, this would be an intolerable event.

To prevent further stair-related injuries, the organization might develop a stair walking procedure and ensure all employees are trained in it. A rule could be written and enforced stating that all stair walking must be done with a co-worker to act as a spotter.

Another solution would be to have employees, before engaging in stair walking, complete a task analysis ensuring they are aware of all the hazards and have minimized the risk. However, the best approach is to eliminate stairs from the workplace altogether.

All these suggestions to ensure no one else slips on the stairs would be amusing, except for the fact that this is typical of what is actually happening in safety. To attempt any of these solutions is mismanagement and makes a mockery out of safety programs.

‘Everyone gets to go home’

A starting point to achieving real safety improvements is to change the objective to “at the end of the day everyone gets to go home.” This recognizes the inherent and acceptable risk of high-occurrence, low-consequence hazards. It also emphasizes that hazards that result in people not going home are intolerable.

This is an honest approach with employees, which exploits the inherent value of safety to engage employees in the program and allows resources to be appropriately applied where there is the greatest risk.

Organizations need to start by focusing on formal job hazard analysis by creating detailed job descriptions and lists of job tasks for safety-sensitive positions. The job tasks should then be broken into the respective steps necessary to complete the task. The steps should then be analysed for hazards. Identified hazards should then be controlled using administrative, personal protective equipment or engineering controls. From this process, safe operation procedures need to be written and affected employees trained on the procedure.

Rob Stewart is an organizational performance consultant, specializing in hazard risk management, at Pragmatic Solutions in Calgary. He can be reached at

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