The debate

Zero harm’, or other corporate objectives with ‘zero’ as a target, is the underpinning philosophy of many large organisations world-wide.  But is this a valid and realistic corporate aim?  And among many challenges how should progress towards the objective be measured?

The ‘zero harm’ debate has excited controversy, with purists in one corner; adopting organisations in the other.

  • The purists argue typically that zero harm can only be achieved at infinite cost; that preventive efforts may be mis-directed, that even well-motivate people make mistakes, and if zero harm has been achieved it is either a statistical fluke or a slight of hand;
  • In contrast, adopting companies can often demonstrate that the precept helps, that genuine progress has been made, and the businesses are still profitable;
  • Moreover they argue that a key principle of effective H&S management is that everyone in an organisation genuinely believes that all harm is preventable.  Historically, companies that have adopted ‘zero harm’ as a key business aim generally enjoy better H&S performance than those who haven’t.

I am agnostic.  I understand both sides of the argument, see my two blogs:

I have to acknowledge that writing trenchant criticisms of zero accident targets is much easier than mounting a measured defence.  The second blog is the more important.

The fundamental discordance is when “all harm is unacceptable” – absolutely right – transmogrifies into “utopia starts tomorrow; the slogan will rapidly win the hearts and minds of everyone – and accident rates will plummet” – wishful thinking.

Should Hastam offer a (one-day) ’zero harm’ workshop? 

I think it’s a good idea. Substantial numbers of companies, notably in construction, have embarked on the zero harm journey.  In principle there are a large number of people and/or organisations who would welcome an opportunity to reflect on their strategy, their preventive approach, and the reliability of their performance indicators.

My first attempt at setting out the objectives of a workshop is in the Appendix.

But I might easily be wrong.

So the purpose of this blog is to ‘fly a kite’ just to see what happens.

Some of my Hastam colleagues, whom I greatly respect, are in the purist camp.  Anyway they suspect that if we offered a workshop, tutors would out-number the delegates.

They may be right.  I have been unable to find any advertised open courses that tackle zero harm as the foundation for an integrated process for promoting and measuring safety improvements.  Of course many companies rely on in-house training, and perhaps would prefer to keep it that way.

What do I have in mind?

I must stress that I do NOT propose a workshop that challenges the concept of zero harm and seeks to disparage those who have adopted it.

Rather I propose a workshop that presumes that zero harm – subject to definition – is not just a valid point of departure, but also helps companies towards best practice – and shows how the downsides can be overcome.

I also think that the workshops would be inspirational, and delegates would learn much from the experience of other attendees.

So what follows in the Appendix is my first attempt at a zero harm proposal.  Contact us at Hastam if you or your company is interested in a workshop.  Also, I’m sure my colleagues would be interested to hear that you agree with them!



One-day Workshop: managing ‘zero harm’ (‘target zero’) interventions

Who would be the target audience?

A typical delegate might be from a company who has embraced zero accidents for several years, and wants to take stock.  This could be simply because it’s time for a review.  Or even because a serious incident has challenged the current approach. Another is a H&S manager who has so far been hesitant about zero harm but is under pressure to reconsider.

In-company bespoke workshops would also be offered.

What are the aims?

The aims of the Workshops are to:

  • Explain the pros and cons of the zero harm philosophy and compare with competing alternatives, eg, ‘cultural maturity’;
  • Set out the challenges of ‘zero harm’ initiatives, how to overcome these challenges (as far as is possible); and
  • How to develop zero harm interventions that work.

After attending the Workshops, delegates will better understand how to implement effective ‘zero harm’ interventions, and better able to judge whether they are succeeding.

What are the Objectives?

The objectives of the course are to address these non-mutually exclusive questions:

[Note that C might precede B so the subject matter is positive at the end of the day.]

Part A  Zero harm as a business H&S objective

  1. What are the arguments of those on both sides of the debate:
  • The ‘academic’ case?
  • The practical case?
  1. Under what circumstances is zero harm a cost-beneficial (and cost-effective) business objective?
  2. How can you choose which zero(s) to pursue as targets (not just harm) – and over what time-scale?

Part B  Zero harm in practice  

  1. In what ways should the H&SMS of a ‘zero harm’ organisation be different than those of companies that eschew zero harm?
  2. How should leaders promote and secure zero harm strategies?
  3. In what ways (if at all) should the following interventions be adapted to take into account the over-arching philosophy:
  • Risk assessments and controls?
  • Behavioural safety?
  • Safety climate surveys?
  • Consultation and participation e.g. in risk assessments?
  • Hazard-specific and motivational training?
  • Target setting for senior staff?
  1. In what ways should the following performance monitoring/ measuring techniques be adapted to take into account the over-arching philosophy:
  • Pro-active monitoring, e.g. drilling down to confirm compliance with procedures?
  • Accident and incident reporting?
  • Accident and incident investigation?
  • Evaluation of lagging (incidents etc) data?
  • Publicising performance indicators?

C          Zero harm: dealing with challenges

  1. How best to address the following:
  • Scepticism about the organisation’s approach?
  • Reporting only good news?
  • Evidence of a blame culture?
  • Disciplinary action?
  • How to respond to bad events (e.g. major incidents, enforcement action, and evidence that KPIs have been massaged) that might undermine the programme?

Zero harm plans decaying with time?

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