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Has Zero Harm safety evolved into something harmful?

For many businesses, the concept of zero harm has become the core philosophy of workplace safety; that every worker should return home in the state that they arrived. Sounds good right? So how could a concept as aspirational as this, be causing so much debate within the workplace safety industry? Has Zero Harm evolved into something harmful?

Last week’s OHS Leaders Summit in the Sunshine Coast saw some of Australia’s thought leaders on workplace health and safety come together to discuss the hottest topics in the OHS space. Zero Harm, remarkably, found itself under fire with this audience. So, if at its core Zero Harm is an aspirational philosophy; something desirable to be achieved; why are safety management thought leaders discussing the problems with it?

The problem with Zero Harm isn’t with the philosophy, but with its implementation in business. During the move from philosophy to implementation, to use a programming term, Zero Harm has developed some bugs.

The biggest implementation ‘bug’ has been the incorporation of Zero Harm into KPIs for team leaders. Creating a risk-free workplace for some leaders has become more important for things like the end of year bonuses than anything else. So, again, why is this a problem? Because as with any system that involves humans, there WILL be human error. In short, a 100% risk-free workplace isn’t achievable because people make mistakes. The issues that arise with Zero Harm, arise because a structured business system is striving for something unattainable.

So what are those issues?

When a business is adjusting to achieve the unattainable, it does what any structured system does in that instance; it goes too far. It continues to ramp up the protections in an effort to remove human error. Each time a new incident occurs, it results in a new list of stifling rules and limitations being placed on workers and businesses. Correction, when it comes to safety is a perfect approach, but over-correction can be damaging. It can limit creativity, job-enjoyment, and self-improvement.

As you can probably tell, this is a touchy subject. A safe workplace is NOT a bad thing; nobody is saying that. What they’re saying is that there’s a line, a Zero Harm has the potential to push businesses past that line.

So what’s the alternative?

At the OHS Leaders Summit, Kelvin Genn, Director of Risk and Service Delivery Support, Cater Care Group brought up Uber’s approach as an alternative.

Uber has designed a self-correcting safety framework where drivers rely on positive feedback to continue their business. Passengers are provided with safe travel at a fair price and the technology around this allows this system to thrive and self-correct into a better service. As Kelvin Genn said:

“people are empowered and trusted with freedom within a framework”

To rephrase; you provide a safe framework in which you entrust your workers to operate within. You place certain safety measures in place and allow it to evolve to mitigate as much risk as possible.

How can you achieve this and still provide a safe work environment?

As Kevin Genn said, you provide your workers “freedom within a framework”. Make it easy for those workers to correct or report on hazards quickly and easily; encourage a safety culture within your business. With mobile technology where it is, it has never been easier to empower your workforce to take part in your business’ safety without limiting their capabilities.

(Donesafe provide an easy-to-use safety management software designed for that very purpose; so we’d be silly not to make a note of it here)

Are we seriously going to finish this article with a sales pitch?

No, don’t worry. The real core of this article is about how to approach safety. Safety can’t just be one person’s responsibility. In the end, there are multiple parties who suffer because of an injury. Zero Harm frameworks all too often place that responsibility on only a small handful of team leaders when really, if everybody is involved there’s a very real chance that you’ll end up with a much happier and safer workforce.

By Christopher Notley-Smith at

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