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Is a "zero injury" policy even achievable? Find out what safety expert Dan Hannan has to say.

“I Can’t Fix Stupid”—Zero Injury is an Impossible Goal

It’s inevitable that somewhere, sometime, a worker at your company will do something stupid, resulting in an injury. You’re kidding yourself if you believe that isn’t the way it plays out.  It’s a numbers game of probability—the more time that passes and worker hours are logged without an injury the closer you get to experiencing an injury.  Therefore does a “zero injury” goal even make sense?  When an injury does occur, as it surely will, has the safety program failed?

Stupid is relative and when an injury has occurred maybe a look in the mirror is what’s needed first.  As the employer how might have we contributed to the injury?  Were behavioral expectations clearly communicated?  Did we provide the worker with adequate training and direction?  Are the processes or procedures broke?  Is the work environment/culture poor where risk-taking is not held in check or actually encouraged?

The belief that zero injury is achievable is held by many these days and appears as a core value, in mission statements, and as yearly initiatives, and is proudly on display in the form of hard hat stickers and posters.  But even organizations with world-class safety programs, who are logging millions of hours without an injury, will eventually experience one. Whether an unsafe “stupid” behavior or an unfixed workplace condition is the cause of an injury, when zero incidents is the goal, that single occurrence can cause embarrassment and be seen as a step backward. It’s not too far of a stretch to imagine workers hiding injuries so that they aren’t pegged as the “idiot” who ended the winning streak.

Many safety professionals believe that a more reasonable approach is to focus on the prevention or interception of the precursors to injuries such as unacceptable behaviors and workplace conditions — making zero unsafe behaviors the objective, rather than zero injuries.  This concept is the foundation of an observation-based safety program where workers monitor each other’s behavior for at-risk actions.

Of course, in order for the workforce to embrace any safety initiative or goal the following must be considered:

  • Developed by the people for the people—greater success is achieved when there is buy-in and ownership. When developing goals obtain participation from all necessary levels of an organization which binds the outcome to the effort through “having skin in the game”.
  • Feedback—are we winning or losing? The workforce wants to know if the efforts are paying off and if not what is happening to correct it.  Messaging from leadership shows a commitment to safety and appreciation for the effort.
  • Maintenance and course correction—is needed to tweak any prevention program. Nothing works perfectly especially when it is new.  This approach conforms to the plan-do-check-act model of process improvement.

There’s nothing wrong with setting zero as the goal as long as it is understood that if that doesn’t happen it’s not failure. Any injury is unacceptable as is a lack of effort to prevent them.  If properly developed, implemented, and messaged a “zero” approach can work.

dan hannan 620Dan Hannan is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and has been practicing safety for twenty-four years.  He is presently the Safety Director for Merjent, an environmental and social consulting firm serving the world’s leading energy and natural resource companies. Merjent  consultants have decades of specialized experience on pipeline projects, including planning and feasibility, environmental permitting, construction compliance, operational compliance, third-party analyses, stakeholder engagement, and technology solutions.  Dan can be reached at dhannan@merjent.com.

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