Are You For or Against Zero Incident Targets?

April 05, 2016

If you are part of the EHS or safety community, you are familiar with the debate over the merits of pursuing a goal of zero incidents, injuries and fatalities. On the surface, it may appear that zero-incidents is a noble target worth pursuing, but others argue that a formal zero-incidents target is unrealistic and may lead to under-reporting incidents, which can negatively impact the safety culture.

A few weeks ago, I came across an article in BLR where two thought leaders promote each opposing point-of-view regarding this great debate in the safety community. The article, The quest for zero: Safety spark plug or trendy gimmick?, is very thorough and detailed. If you want a preview, here are summaries of the main arguments put forward by the thought leaders.

Nobody Gets Hurt

On the side of the “zero incident philosophy” is consultant and educator Carl Potter, CSP, who is the founder of the Safety Institute. Potter’s arguments are the following:

  • Any target number of incidents other than zero sends a message that “it’s OK to be in business and make a profit at the expense of flesh and blood”.
  • If a company does not pursue an objective of zero incidents (for example: another target number that is less than the number of incidents from the previous year), the company may give the impression that it is condoning incidents.
  • Zero has earned a bad reputation among those who consider it an empty slogan with no processes or strategies behind it. The way to counter this is to “create a workplace where zero is possible”. This can be done, for example, through a set of criteria for safety excellence based on the OSHA Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP).

Know What You’re Getting Into

On the side of those who have doubts about “zero safety targets” is Michael Burnham, CSP, who is the safety director for Riggs Distler & Co. Burnham’s arguments are the following:

  • Zero represents perfection. Employees cannot operate perfectly all the time. Zero may be perceived as too hard to achieve, and thus not be motivating for employees.
  • When an employer with a zero vision fails to achieve it, this failure can undermine one’s ability to lead in the minds of followers.
  • To get to a perfect safety record, an organization and its leaders must effectively identify and address everything that could lead to an injury. This requires unlimited resources, all employees scoring 100% on every post-training exam, and company control of all factors that contribute to injuries, all of which are unlikely to achieve.
  • Zero targets don’t work. Burnham cites research suggesting that overarching goals of this type don’t meet their mark. Instead, he recommends achievable, individual-specific goals and rewarding employees when they reach them.

What do you think? On which side of the great debate over zero do you see yourself? If you’re still undecided and need more background information, read the BLR article in its entirety, which also explains how Siemens USA reinvented the zero concept through its process “Zero Harm Culture: Safety, It’s a Mindset.” Hopefully the article will help you determine how to approach in your organization by helping you answer the question “Are you for or against zero incident targets?”