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Zero Accident Vision: Success factors, zero redefined or just pointless?

At the risk of taking my life into my own hands and posting an article about the contentious topic of "zero" in health and safety, let me make my position on the subject clear, because I think it has been misrepresented from time to time.

Yes, I am not a fan of programs that headline zero. I simply find it personally inconsistent with everything I know about the real world, and I do think it can lead to environments which encourage workers to cover up incidents. Having said that, my approach to zero is not to condemn it outright. Several commentators – you know who they are, and they are cited in the article I discuss below – oppose the concept of zero outright. Based on legitimate research, it is argued that simply including the language of zero in a safety program is harmful, damaging to people and undermines effective safety performance.

I understand the research and I respect the opinions, but I do not have the background to form such a concluded view myself.

What I would say, however, and I think this is consistent with everything I see in safety management, particularly from a legal perspective, is if there is a body of research suggesting a health and safety strategy has potential harm - and there is a body of research that suggests zero harm programs have the potential for harm - I think it is incumbent on organisations who promote zero harm as a health and safety strategy to understand and demonstrate its efficacy. In other words, I think, organisations that promote zero harm must evaluate that program to understand whether it is having the positive impact on safety they seek or whether it is having any of the potential negative impacts that research suggests it may have.

That is my position. If you promote any safety management strategy, and if you say you hold yourself out as preventing people from being injured or killed, you have an obligation to understand whether that strategy works, whether it is helping to improve safety, or whether it is potentially doing harm.

So, with this position in mind, I have just read an article which, if not defending the notion of zero provides an analysis of the success factors for a concept described as Zero Accident Vision, The importance of commitment, communication, culture and learning for the implementation of the Zero Accident Vision in 27 companies in Europe

The article struck me as extremely odd and almost pointless in the context of zero.

First, the article looks at success factors for 27 companies implementing a Zero Accident Vision.

The “success factors” seemed to me to be entirely unrelated to the notion of zero. The article looked at issues like commitment, communication, culture and learning. These things strike me as entirely unsurprising. These factors have been identified as success factors in all safety management programs for decades.

I think linking the success factors to Zero Accident Vision, somehow creates an impression – in my view quite a misleading impression – that somehow you need to be a Zero Accident Vision company to implement the success factors. It would have been just as legitimate an exercise to test the implementation of the success factors in non-Zero Accident Vision companies.

The finding, “It is very likely that this commitment is the main driver for long-term safety improvements”, says nothing about the efficacy of headlining safety management program with zero.

Similarly, the finding:

Companies that implement ZAV are serious in their strategies and practices to improve safety, and realise that it will be an on-going effort

does not seem to me, to say anything about the strategy of zero.

Is there any suggestion that companies that do not have a Zero Accident Vision are not serious in their strategies and practices to improve safety? Is there anything to suggest that commitment is not the main driver for long-term safety improvements in companies that do not have a Zero Accident Vision? That has certainly not been my experience.

It seems to me just as likely that the research could have been conducted across 27 companies, regardless of their vision statement, to see the influence that the success factors had. Although I am not sure that would have added anything to our body of knowledge. In this article, the use of the word zero seems completely superfluous.

Second, the article continues a tradition of what I can only perceive as “zero apologetics”.

Companies headline safety management programs under the title of “zero harm” or some other such title, but then go on to argue things like “it is an aspiration not a target”. This article continues the tradition with comments like:

It is important that [Zero Accident Vision] is not a (quantitative) target, but the ambition to make WorkSafe, which will always require a long-term journey and sustained efforts


the focus in the 27 companies were strongly on the vision (not the zero)

This is one of the things that has always confounded me about zero vision safety. If the zero is not what program is about, what use the term? Surely there are better ways to create a vision for safety in your organisation then using such a binary term like zero (it is either zero or it is not)? And if you are going to use a term like “zero harm”, why keep apologising for it or redefining it?

Yes, I know we say “zero harm” but that is not what we mean

The article seems take these apologetics one step further and redefine, or at least qualify what zero actually means.

In the abstract, the article says:

In this paper the findings are presented of a multinational study involving 27 companies that have adopted a “Zero Accident Vision” (ZAV). [Zero Accident Vision] is the ambition that all accidents are preventable …

However, at least three times in the paper, Zero Accident Vision is referred to as an ambition and commitment to create and ensure safe work and prevent all (serious) accidents.

Again, if this is what you mean by zero, why do not you say it? Surely there is a better way to express your commitment to preventing all “serious” accidents than with the misleading headline of “zero harm” or some other zero derivative, which continually needs to be explained as meaning something other than what it obviously says?

It seems that when we talk about “target zero”, zero is not a target and the aspiration is not even zero.

All of this reinforces my personal experience with workers who see zero philosophies in organisations as confusing and inconsistent with their common sense, day-to-day understanding of what a term like “zero harm” or “zero accident vision” honestly means. No doubt the success factors described in this article would go a long way to clarifying what zero meant in an organisation, but this seems to me to be a rather misguided use of resources.

Surely it is possible to create a vision of safety that is not divisive, contentious or confusing and free up resources to direct the success factors towards achieving better safety outcomes?

What if I did not have a zero vision, but I simply had an honest vision. A vision that said, you know what, I do not think we can prevent all accidents, but we can be 100% committed to preventing all serious accidents?

Would that make more sense to the workers?

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I too follow your line of thinking on this subject Greg. For the record, our Vision is "We believe all incidents are preventable" and "Our results will reflect our actions". Why is this our vision, because not everyone believes that all incidents are preventable and until we all truely believe, we have a lot of work to do to make it so. It is then we can work on how we can achieve the outcome. We do have a little contention with the fact we talk incidents holistically and do not talk accidents. A discussion for another day.

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