OHS Canada Magazine

Moving away from zero: busting the no-harm myth in the workplace

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May 26, 2022
By Paula Campkin

Human Resources Psychological Safety psychologically safe workplace

Zero harm concepts are a mindset in which all accidents and injuries are avoidable. These are often marketed as target zero, mission zero, beyond zero or similar verbiage, with a common belief: if you’re not aiming for zero, you are not putting in your best effort. Many can relate to this strategy of commitment, which is intended to inspire better choices from managers and workers and result in safer outcomes.

The concept of zero goes awry when the messaging is misinterpreted, or it is used as an actual target. When open to interpretation, people will find ways to meet expectations, which can result in a focus on eliminating minor incidents because those are the most visible and frequent types. Depending on the context and how it’s delivered, the message of “zero” can either encourage safe decisions and outcomes, or lead to mis-prioritizing efforts and focusing on less impactful actions.

Busting the workplace myth

Thought leaders, like Energy Safety Canada, are moving away from the messaging of “zero incidents and injuries.” The interpretation of aspirational targets like this can lead to unintended behaviors that may conflict with improving safety, such as re-classifying incidents, failing to report incidents, or creating an environment where workers are afraid to report “bad” news. At what point does striving to reach an improbable goal become more important than what is actually happening?

Those striving to move away from zero harm messaging focus instead on the fact that when work is conducted, there is always some risk. The view is that safeguards and training can reduce the chance of a serious injury from, say, one in 100 to one in a million, but mathematically, some risk always remains.

Focus efforts where you want to see results

Proponents of author Dr. Todd Conklin’s safety theory are familiar with the question, “Would you be willing to trade a fatality or serious injury for a minor injury?” Of course, the answer is absolutely!


To prevent serious injuries and fatalities, an organization must increase both its tolerance for and understanding of minor incidents. While this may seem counterintuitive at first glance, sharing the small stuff must be psychologically safe for workers if you want to truly learn from it and be able to focus your efforts on those risks with potential for more serious outcomes.

After all, if reports are not accurate and honest, how will the organization improve?

First and foremost, safety is about reducing risk

Safety should not be about the number of incidents; it should be about the outcomes and what we can learn from them. If a company is seen to have a high number of incidents, some view that as an indicator of how unsafe the organization is. But others see it as having an engaged workforce that is committed to reporting and learning from all incidents, even minor ones.

Creating a psychologically safe environment allows workers to speak up and challenge a safety system’s potential blind spots. Workers should feel empowered to communicate all aspects of work — good and bad. A worker voicing a concern could mean the difference between ending the day at home or in a hospital.

One of the barriers to reducing work site risk is that people view risk from their own perspective. The differences in our backgrounds, experiences and priorities all factor into how we interpret risk and what actions are appropriate. This can create conflicting goals for members of the same team.

For example, a supervisor’s goal could be to ensure a shipment is ready to send by the end of the day; whereas a worker’s goal is to ensure everything is accounted for and loaded without incident. From the supervisor’s perspective, the risk is missing the deadline and potentially disappointing or losing a client. However, the worker views the risk of rushing as a potential for injury or not having a complete order.

These different perspectives are enough to create competing priorities within the team. Clearly translating goals into actions is one step to ensure the workplace is aligned on achieving safer outcomes. Clarity helps to create an engaged and empowered workforce.

Worker engagement: the foundation for continuous improvement

When expectations are unclear or workers feel a goal is unrealistic, it leads to disengagement, regardless of good intentions. People start to go through the motions because their reality — what they experience day-to-day — contradicts what they’re being told. Zero is an oversimplified view of a complex work environment.

Achieving lasting organizational change is a gradual and methodical process built on aligned views, common ground, and clarity on what actions are needed to reach the goal.Progression takes time, and by learning from incidents through their perspective, workers are more likely to participate in being part of the solution.

There is a more effective and long-lasting approach to improved safety performance than simply driving down numbers. Moving away from zero is an opportunity to engage workers, improve organizational learning, and implement controls that increase an organization’s capacity to fail safely.


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