Does zero mean nothing?

Evidence shows that every task can be done without hurting workers

Does zero mean nothing?
The downside of target zero is when this noble vision turns into a statistical obsession
Dave Fennell

“We will have zero injuries,” declared Jennifer, a senior manager in a manufacturing company. “Nobody will be hurt on my watch,” stated construction superintendent Danny. Safety expert Tammy expounded that “Zero is the only acceptable goal.” It seems like there are plenty of managers, companies and safety people focused on this concept of zero, but what exactly does that mean?

 I cannot think of a more noble and righteous vision in safety than to have a workplace where workers can work without injury or illness. We should all be able to make a living in an environment where we will not be harmed physically or mentally. This belief has been a guiding principle for some of the best safety professionals and managers I have worked with. So how can such a caring approach become such a controversial statement and subject of debate in safety?

First of all, is zero possible? Unequivocally, yes! Take a look at all the jobs in your organization and think about all the times those tasks have been done without incident or injury. You will find plenty of examples where these jobs have been done successfully at one time or another. This suggests that each task can be performed without incident. Now think about those parts of your organization that have gone months or even years without an injury. Again, you’ll find that work groups within an organization have been able to work without losses for substantial periods of time. And now think about your entire organization and look for those days, weeks and months where your whole company has been injury-free and again you will find examples of near perfect performance.

It may be a big leap in logic for some, but if we have evidence that every task has been done without hurting workers, every work group has had long durations without incidents and the entire organization has had streaks of success, then these glimpses of zero tell us it is in fact possible.

The next consideration we need to examine on this quest for zero is zero what? Zero injuries? Zero vehicle incidents? Zero risk? Let’s start by looking at risk. Zero risk is not possible. Everything we do in life has a degree of risk, and the challenge in both life and work is to minimize the risk. We put procedures in place to lower the risk in how we do the work. We use personal protective equipment to reduce the risk of injury when an incident does occur. We ensure we understand the personal and corporate influencing factors that determine our tolerance for risk. And we choose the lower-risk options on how we conduct work. But the only way to achieve that is to stay home in bed. Alas, a sedentary lifestyle has been said to be a health risk factor as well.

Striving for no serious injuries, however, is realistic and can be the starting point for this aspiration of zero. It is a safety absolute that we must be able to do any type of work without fatal injuries. Organizations that do not believe it is possible or make statements that “fatalities are unavoidable due to the nature of our business” should not be in business. It distresses me that there are still company executives who support this nature-of-the-business copout. A vision of no lost-time injuries and no restricted work injuries is reasonable and achievable, albeit with some effort and commitment.

The downside of target zero comes to light when managers, or organizations as a whole, take this noble vision and turn it into a statistical obsession. It usually begins with the good intentions of creating a workplace where nobody gets hurt, but then it gets attached to incentives and punishments.

A bonus for achieving zero can lead to creative incident classification where managers will find ways of downgrading incidents to maintain a stat of zero on their incident record books. That stat begins to take on a life of its own and the real intention of the vision — ensuring the well-being of our workers — is lost. Punishment for those who derail the statistical purity of zero only leads to a culture that encourages non-reporting and even hiding incidents. Again, it’s the exact opposite of what we are trying to achieve through our goal.

A manager’s reaction to a setback on the journey to an injury-free workplace can also impact the tone on whether this “zero thing” is a vision or just another metric. A post-incident declaration that “We need to recalculate our goal because statistically zero is not possible now” just turns into an uninspiring numbers game. The vision must never change. Nobody being hurt is still the ultimate goal even after a setback. Our vision stays strong and inspiring when our reaction to 
an incident is “What did we learn from this and what do we need to do to 
keep us on our journey toward an injury-free workplace?”

The visionaries and the dreamers like safety expert Tammy who believe “Zero is the only acceptable goal” have it right. Let’s keep that as our guiding principle on our safety journey, keep ourselves out of the statistical ditches and learn from the events that want to knock us off course. A workplace where nobody gets hurt is a dream that can come true. 

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2019 issue of COS.