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Mining & Resources | Planning & Design

Zero harm: A vision for a safer workplace

5 Jun 2013, by Informa Insights

Phillip Byard

By Phillip Byard, Manager & Senior Engineering Consultant at InterSafe*

I believe Zero Harm is a vision which inspires and calls people to acts of greatness.  A good vision is always just outside of your reach.  Does this mean it is achievable? – maybe not but I’m gonna have a good crack at trying!!  Is Zero Harm theoretical meaning “good theory”?  No – it’s not.  In its crudest form it does not match what people consider as tolerable and intolerable.  The theory of Zero Harm can disenfranchise the workforce as they see their supervisor more concerned about them getting dust in the eye, or a scratch on their hand than the higher consequence / lower likelihood risks that could change their lives forever!  What matters most must matter most.

Zero Harm suggests that all damage is preventable and preventable over time.  Damage can range from multiple fatalities to a paper cut and not all levels of damage, obviously, have the same impact.  But ultimately do we desire that no person is damaged at all – absolutely.  Damage, however, which is permanent to a person’s tissue or function will last forever and have potentially devastating impacts in personal, financial, family and social settings.  This is an intolerable level of damage. Damage which is minor is here today and gone tomorrow and potentially not even a memory.  This is a tolerable level of damage.  Some levels of damage are tolerable – others aren’t.  It certainly won’t be one of the many paper cuts I have already experienced that will be remembered on my death bed but that fall down the mountain in October of 2005 – well I’ve lived with the impact of that one for most of my life.  (Sorry have to count me out on the round of golf.)  But Zero Harm suggests that we need to remove all experiences of tolerable damage and intolerable damage.  And here lies the crux of the counter-productive theory of Zero Harm.

Many believe that lower level minor and tolerable damage is a precursor to higher level permanent and intolerable damage.  This is the traditional interpretation of the iceberg principle or incident triangle.  If we have minor levels of damage then we are setting ourselves up the big one!! Unfortunately what was nice and simple in theory does not ring true with more complex organisational experience.  Many organisations who have walked the Zero Harm journey for many years have been able to effectively drive AIFR’s down while at the same time seeing an increase in fatality rates.  The reality is that the phenomena that produces minor levels of damage is different to the phenomena that produces permanent impairment or a single fatality or multiple fatalities.  There are some overlaps but essentially the patterns of the phenomena are different.  Therefore effectively managing high likelihood / low consequence exposures will have little bearing on the likelihood for intolerable level of damage (low likelihood / high consequence).  An effective glove policy will significantly reduce minor damage to hands and see AIFRs reduce but will not be indicative of whether access systems are appropriately designed, whether manual handling is being effectively managed, whether exposure to structural collapse / fires / floods and explosions have appropriate controls in place.  There are some cultural benefits to having an effective glove policy in place but do not be fooled, each level of consequence must be effectively managed in its own right.

Safety in ActionNot only are the patterns different for different levels of damage but so are the intrinsic likelihoods.  Minor levels of damage requires very low levels of energy exchange whereas fatalities / multiple fatalities require significantly greater levels of energy exchange and have in fact predominantly different energies involved.  So minor levels of damage are common and high levels of damage are rare (even before controls are put in place!).  But, and it’s a big BUT, we must not fall into the trap of assigning resources in direct proportion to the frequency of occurrence.  This could result in 80% of our effort focussed on minor levels of damage (which is tolerable) and  not 80% of our effort focused on the intolerable permanent damage (which is less than 1% of the occurrences.)  The challenge for any organisation is to keep this balance in check.  80% focus on permanent damage – 20% focus on temporary and minor damage.  However, Zero Harm works against this balance.  It becomes that previously tolerable damage is now regarded as intolerable.  I regard this as immoral and unethical.  The risk is that organisations now divert resources away from intolerable damage to manage tolerable damage which makes the intolerable damage now more likely.

In fact the “I told you so” stories where low consequence occurrences was on the increase and the higher consequence occurrence was predicted could be self-fulfilling prophesy.  “Hey, you are having a whole bunch of hand injuries.  IF you don’t get this sorted we could end up killing someone.”  So how does the organisation respond?  By diverting resources and attention to managing hand injuries.  The fact that a higher consequence occurrence occurred could be more to do with how we respond to a spate of low consequence incidents and less to do with that we had the low consequence occurrences in the first place!

I believe Zero Harm is an aspirational vision that can create cultures where we  believe that people are precious and not a disposable commodity, where we care for ourselves and our fellow workers and don’t turn a blind eye, and where we agree together that safety is more important than production and so don’t knowingly remove controls in order to get the job done.  It helps to prioritise within a community, a business, a department, a work team a focus on effectively managing health and safety risk.  These are necessary attributes of a healthy safety culture … the devil however, as they say, is in the detail.  Zero Harm can engender passion but passion without critical, rational and logical models and strategies simply results in fanaticism.  Zero Harm can be aspirational but it can also produce outcomes that are counter-productive to the vision.   What is needed is a mature approach to Zero Harm.

* InterSafe’s General Manager Justin Ludcke will particpate Safety in Action 2013: Brisbane Safety Conference.

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