Zero incident culture: the best approach to HSEQ or a meaningless corporate slogan?

Mila Budeva
Mila Budeva
Mar 18, 2018

The debate over the pros and cons of a zero-incident culture has been a prominent one in the HSEQ community.

In a nutshell, it questions whether the target to completely eliminate all injuries, incidents and fatalities at the workplace:


Is the only acceptable approach to ensuring occupational health and safety across industries and employment types


presents organisations with an unachievable goal, the pursuit of which results in under-reporting of non-compliance, blind spots and further undermines workers’ safety.


So, what are the arguments for and against and can evidence help to pick a side?


For zero incident culture

Zero tolerance to unsafe conditions and behaviours

To some, any number other than zero suggests that the company justifies making profit at the expense of workers’ safety. As Carl Potter suggests, this is a lot like saying to workers “OK, how about if I hurt all 23 of you right now badly enough to be considered an OSHA recordable, then we can be done for the year. Let’s just go ahead and get this out of the way.” [1]. The number might be an improvement from a previous period but would it make a difference to the workers who still face significant risk of being injured? [2]


An ‘impossible’ target drives compliance and innovation

Entirely eliminating the hazards and occurrences of fatal and non-fatal injuries is a challenging target which can motivate organisations to explore and even invent new tools and strategies for its achievement.


From reactive to pro-active safety approach

The goal of eliminating the occurrence of incidents and accidents places greater emphasis on pre-emptively identifying and eliminating hazards rather than responding to them post hoc. This helps organisations to establish a culture of self-auditing, continuously driving compliance and safety.


Worker safety as the clear priority

Presently, workers might resort to reporting their organisations to an external regulatory body such as the HSE in the UK or OSHA in the US because they might not have an easy way of communicating with management or they might have previously voiced concerns which have remained unaddressed or even used against them. A target zero safety approach clearly indicates to workers that their safety is an organisational priority and they are an integral part of building a better culture of safety.


Against zero incident culture

It is important to acknowledge that the arguments against zero incidents are not against achieving a culture of safety for all workers. Rather, the arguments are against an approach which, as the against side argues, either remains a PR façade or puts too much pressure on organisations and undermines their work towards greater safety.


Empty slogan

As Vaughan Burnard, project director at the Education Funding Agency notes, “A lot of contractors introduce “zero accidents behaviour” as a terminology, but then they don’t do anything to change behaviour” [3].


Creating a false sense of safety

When acted upon, the zero incident target can result in reduced frequency of accidents. However, this does not necessarily indicate overall improvement of safety. As Carsten Busch suggests in his book Safety Myth 101, “pursuing a zero goal may see you hitting the target but missing the point”. The number of minor incidents might decrease, but working towards marginal improvements can divert focus away from more significant risks.


Billy Hare, professor of construction management, Glasgow Caledonian University, uses the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion as an example - senior managers were on the oil platform, evaluating safety, and despite the clean sheet a catastrophic explosion took place, resulting in the death of eleven people [4].


Under-reporting and putting workers at greater risk

In professor Sidney Dekker’s words “It’s stupid to try and declare a vision zero...It’s a nice commitment and statement, but as a measurement it’s led to all sorts of silly practices.” Workers are more likely to under-report issues and incidents so that they are not the ones who ruin the perfect zero score, placing them at greater risk. Aspiring to a perfect score may result in decreased operational compliance. In an example provided by Dekker, workers were seen to carry their own first aid kits so they can treat minor injuries themselves rather than follow the standard operating procedure of reporting to management [5].


What about factors outside the organisation’s control?

Is it possible to predict and counteract all the risks and incidents that could take place? If zero were reached, would it be possible to prove that it is 100% the result of the zero target? When zero incidents is not only a commitment but also a measurement, a perfect safety score holds the risk of creating a false sense of safety. As Alan Quilley suggests, “Nothing in our history of human behaviour or experience has been proven to be 100% true or 100% false” [6].


Does this also mean that neither side is completely right or wrong? There is evidence of both possible outcomes. It is possible for the target to remain a hollow slogan on a company’s website. It is also possible to become a success, prioritising safety and hence driving workers’ experience and company productivity. This suggests that, largely, the outcome depends on the system that is put in place to pursue the zero incident target.


Most importantly, the aim of the debate should not necessarily be about proving the infallibility of one side but rather to continuously highlight and address the failures of a system of workplace safety where injuries and fatalities remain a norm rather than an exception.


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[3] [4]