10 Health and Safety Myths – those times we smelled a rat

Today: #3 Zero Harm – Stop Taking it Literally!  I’ve put together 10 of my favourite safety-time-wasters, irritations and myths. Expect one post about every three weeks. These are just my opinions and others may “feel” differently. But if anything does resonate with you, punch the air. Better still, if something leads you to question conventional safety doctrines, then join the party.

Zero Harm – Stop Taking it Literally!

I’m self-employed. So I can’t lose my job just for saying I don’t “believe in” Zero Harm. But others have lost their careers, apparently, so listen carefully to Uncle Simon: If you happen to work in, or have applied for a safety role in an organisation that espouses Zero Harm, tread carefully. Test the water for zealots. Try expressing cautious doubts about Zero Harm and watch what happens. If your thoughts and words are censored, marginalised or otherwise silenced, you are probably committing a cardinal sin and may suffer eternal damnation. I use religious terminology deliberately because a certain amount of fervour is required in the Church of Zero Harm. So thinking unclean thoughts, let alone verbalising them, can, and has, resulted in excommunication.

Zero harm/Zero defects

Lost time injury ratesI’ve also been lucky enough to have been exposed to “Zero Defects” thinking in Quality Management over the years, such as Philip Crosby training and Kaizen training, including some neat projects. That’s why I never took Zero Harm all that literally. If you boil it all down, Zero Defects was (is) all about taking personal responsibility for your part of the job – not passing on junk to the next person; the well-documented “Toyota Way” that saw the whole production line stop to immediately fix the cause of non-conformances. So I saw Zero Harm the same way – as a mindset in every individual that said “there is no justification for taking a risk or passing it on to someone else”.

Zero Harm Zealots

Then, one day in some LinkedIn group, I found myself up against The Zealots. It initially surprised, indeed, shocked me that apparently educated and experienced people so staunchly castigated me and defended Zero Harm. They saw this symbolic concept not only as something insightful, but also as a helpful and realistic goal. There was something kind of fishy going on too. They weren’t just objectively debating, they were being unpleasant and ultra defensive. Yes, that’s it! They were offended! It was very much what I imagine it would be like after making a casual non-religious observation at a fundamentalist prayer meeting. So that was the clue and also the cue. I exited  stage left. But with objectivity intact.

Now, we have all heard the rather vacuous argument that if we don’t aim for zero, we are somehow condoning a level above zero. And when it’s about harm to people, that makes us some kind of pariah, doesn’t it? But that argument is what’s known as a non sequitur – the conclusion doesn’t logically follow the previous statement. If I’m against capital punishment for murder, it doesn’t mean I’m for the crime of murder. It’s what Dr Rob Long, an Australian expert in social psychology,  has labelled “binary thinking”. Here are two quotes from him:

  • “At the foundation of Zero Harm ideology is the delusion of binary thinking”.
  • “Zero goal setting, zero language and zero ideology is simplistic and therefore unrealistic and unsafe”.

Rob posts some great stuff and has published a number of books. This link will take you to an article called The Ideology of Zero Harm. In it, there are several links to more of his work.


I’m not alone then, in feeling a deep suspicion about Zero Harm. So, before going on, I feel justified in asking a few mischievously naïve questions:

  • How long do you have to have a period of no harm before you’ve officially achieved – y’know – “Zero Harm”?
  • And is the period of time the same for Jim Ruka Drainlayers as it is for Exxon? See, Jim’s a bit lax on safety and has never heard of Zero Harm, but he and his offsider know a thing or two and it’s been 8 years since Jim had that cut finger.
  • Waaait a minute, all organisations have Zero Harm, don’t they? Just can’t seem to tell how long it’s going to be each time. Hey, look, we’ve got a Zero Harm! Ah nah, sorry, it’s gone again.
  • Let’s say it’s a 12 month target. You get there. Then some nasty harm happens the very next day. Did you still achieve Zero Harm? Think carefully before answering. It’s nonsense isn’t it?
  • And now for the reset. “Whoa, that was a slip-up, let’s start again”. Bit like a recovering alcoholic. What happens to Zero when this cycle has been repeated a few times over?
  • Finally, a quote by Dave Collins: “Would you get on a plane that had “ZERO CRASH” emblazoned all over it? (Dave is an Aussie safety guy). This quote just says so much and I find it infectiously funny.

What are the problems with Zero Harm?

Despite the bit of mischief above, those are not actually my main problems with Zero Harm. They are just a few digs at the silliness of it. My problem is that I don’t see it making sense to anyone UNLESS we treat it simply as a nice guiding work ethic. A voice in our heads. In which case we should stop talking about it as if it can exist in any real sense of the word!

We should also think carefully about the message it sends (or fails to send) to the people who are exposed to the highest risk hazards. The Zero Harm slogan is, I believe, not only meaningless to workers, but probably a bit stinky. It reminds me of the exhortation posters we used to see (still see?) in workplaces. There are variations, but this one is pretty much the most dire of them all:  “Think Quality. Remember, the Next Inspector is the Customer” .

Apart from the apparent total abandonment of direct responsibility for quality assurance, this is an empty exhortation that almost literally emanates from the sky. It’s also what these days is called “passive-aggressive”. But worse than that, it passes the quality ball on to the everyday worker without providing tools, leadership or resources. How anyone could have worked all day with that cringeworthy gesture above their heads is a miracle in itself.

I used to post diatribes from an imaginary Health and Safety Manager called Murray Hurry. All irony. Here’s what he had to say about Zero Harm as long ago as March 2013. Not recommended if you are a keen Zero Harm apostle.

By the way.  I’m not on the side of the workers because of any politics. My politics are a little right of centre, if anything. I just respect people. And everyone you meet has a set of unique strengths, weaknesses, attitudes, beliefs and ways of being. Safety is mostly about behaviour. Yet we cannot make the shift in safety to people-centric instead of process-centric.

All people have slightly different ways of learning, contributing and behaving. They all look at the nonsense like “Join the Journey to Zero Harm”, and privately stick two fingers up at the bosses. Because all the symbolic posturing in the world makes no difference unless some things actually happen that are meaningful to them. Like removing obstacles. Having their say, being listened to and having their concerns acted upon. Seeing that management get behind them and take it seriously too.

Why the heck do we need to have “brands”, “acronyms” and “campaigns” anyway? Every time we give some new effort a name, we give it the kiss of death and the timer starts running down. We obviously didn’t know what we were doing before because we now have a new way and a new slogan and that’s the ANSWER. Except it’s not. When you get to my age, you’ve seen multiple cycles come and go in every facet of your life and you just want to get off the roundabout to apply some timeless fundamental truths:

  • “Nothing is more important than understanding human judgement, decision making and motivation”. (Dr Rob Long).
  • “There is no absolute certainty with anything when it comes to humans”. (Dr Rob Long).
  • We need to be asking questions at least as much as inventing solutions no one wants. “What would make your job easier to do?” “What frustrates you about your job?” (It’s not entirely necessary to have the dialogue all about safety. Accidents happen because some things just don’t work coherently).
  • Leadership means attracting the behaviour you want. It’s not even as grand as “walking the talk”. Just get on and quietly show what’s important to you. Keep doing it. Constantly improve but don’t throw it all away just to jump on the next buzzword. (Did someone say Safety II)? Instead, look at all the collective wisdom, new and old. None of it is “all correct” and none of it is “all wrong”. Nothing is a panacea and precious few things are ever brand new. Not now, nor at any time in the future.
  • Have the courage to dispense with things that are meaningless. If wearing a hard hat isn’t needed, don’t make people do it; If you use signs, posters and exhortations to “educate or motivate”, sorry, but do your job. Go and ask. Listen first; Don’t get hung up on artefacts like policies, statements, mantras and dogmas; (And just don’t get me started on the myth of reverse parking).
  • Stop agonising over numbers. Measure accidents (my analogy is you need a vehicle temperature gauge), but moderate those critical incentives, harsh objectives and high expectations. They only lead to disappointments, stress and under-reporting. These things are obstacles to a coherent workplace, not a way to create openness and improvements.

Oh, and maintain a sense of humour. Nobody listens to a po-face.


My 10 Health & Safety Myths. Planned topics and dates.

  • # 1: Passion for Safety – Please no!  29 August 2019
  • #2 Lost Time Injury Rates – Dark Arts in the Boardroom.  18 September 2019
  • #3 Zero Harm – Stop Taking it Literally!  9 October 2019
  • #4 We Have a Safety Culture – Yeah. Nah!  30 October 2019
  • #5 Safety Audits – Smoke and Mirrors  20 November 2019
  • #6 Safety Manuals – You’d Think it Would be Simple  11 December 2019
  • #7 Policy Statements – You Are Committed to What?  5 February 2020
  • #8 Hazard/Risk Registers – What Are They Really For?   26 February 2020
  • #9 Accident Investigation – Tick & Flick  18 March 2020
  • #10 Contractor Management – The Thin Paper Wall   8 April 2020


Simon Lawrence is Director of SafetyPro Limited.

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