Why Zero Harm Is Not A Reality (And How To Make It Happen)

zero harm in the workplace

zero harm in the workplace

One of the primary reasons zero harm fails in organisations is that every single worker doesn’t believe that it is achievable in practice, according to an expert in high-performance safety cultures.

Many companies have mature safety systems, have appropriate risk management strategies in place, meet their compliance commitments and work hard to encourage (or demand) engagement in safety, said Alistair Schuback, safety culture specialist from Aframes Safety.

“I find most organisations have a genuine desire not to hurt their people and achieve high-level safety performance,” he said.

“The intent is there but often, the results are mixed and inconsistent. One part they don’t do well, is to foster the belief in achieving high-level safety,” said Schuback, who explained that a good example of this is zero harm.

“If you ask an average worker whether they believe that zero harm is possible, most people will answer no,” said Schuback, who was speaking ahead of an AIHS webinar on Wednesday 26 February on building a mindful, high-performance safety culture.

“In their mind, there is little data to support this and it is unrealistic. We’ve had the zero harm goal for years yet people still don’t believe it.”

Part of high-performance safety is that the workforce 100 per cent believes the goal is possible, but they just haven’t figured out how to get there yet.

“And the reason zero harm isn’t realistic is that we haven’t figured out how to make it a reality,” he said.

“If we were climbing a large mountain, a better way to think about getting to the top is to focus on the quality of the climbing.

“If we incrementally climb our way up to the top within the constraints of risk, we will eventually get there.

“Zero harm is no different; it is about developing the process and letting the results take care of themselves,” said Schuback, who added that it is much easier to foster safety engagement and drive when this is mindset around achieving safety results.

Getting people to have an enabled mindset rather than a restricted mindset is key in generating new thinking on safety problems, explained Schuback.

“It’s less about adherence to current systems, and more on solving the problem (more scientific than prescriptive in its approach),” he said.

“This comment is not saying that we should not follow procedures, but that we should test whether the procedure will meet the level required to control the risk.

“And if it doesn’t, generate controls that will hit the mark (a JSA is a great tool for this). That’s not the predominant safety message I generally hear.”

Another problem Schuback regularly encounters is low levels of trust, particularly between different subsets within a business – this could be shift to shift, management to workforce, division to division.

Any high-performing team needs high levels of trust, so Schuback said acknowledging where deficiencies exist and working on addressing these is important.

“It’s not always easy but things that are worth pursuing rarely are,” he said.

A final important note is that workers need the mental focus and resilience to execute on the standards asked of them.

Achieving high-performance safety is about high standards and accountability, and Schuback explained that there is pressure that comes with this.

“Many workers may already have ‘too much on their plate’ and be unable to process the extra load,” he said.

“Giving people the skills to develop their mental capacity and focus is paramount to making the choices needed to deliver high-level safety.”

There are a number of steps organisations can address these issues – one of which is to start by seeing safety as a high-performance pursuit.

“Start seeing safety outcomes as challenges that we will solve but we haven’t figured out the right method or approach to solve them yet,” he said.

“It is a more positive and enabled approach and a lot more palatable for the workforce.”

A second important step is to take an incremental approach.

“On the floor, focus on doing five minutes of safe, quality, productive work,” he said.

“When this is completed, focus on the next five minutes – then the next five and so on.

“Zero harm is no longer a goal, but how many good five minutes you can string together at the required level?”

Schuback said this promotes higher levels of situational awareness, emotional control and fosters belief.

“It’s a lot easier to focus on five minutes without an injury than a whole year (which we often ask our workforce to do). It’s also a lot easier to stay positive with this approach,” he said.

It also helps to teach people how their mind functions, according to Schuback, who said this helps them to make better decisions and gives them better focus and concentration.

“And lastly, build the self-efficacy of your workforce so they have the courage and belief to stick with it when times get hard,” he said.

OHS professionals are vital in supporting these activities,” Schuback said: “We are leaders in the safety cause. As leaders, our role is to build and inspire people as opposed to management, which is to use resources to execute a plan.

“Both are important, but we need to do both in a balanced, sustainable manner.

“OHS professionals need to give people the information and skills to make better decisions.”

Above all, Schuback said to keep the focus simple. As high-level risk management is the key to high-performance safety.

“Just like climbing a mountain, we need the planning, the strategy and the execution to get to the top,” he said.

“With the right beliefs and mindset, we give ourselves the best chance to achieve the high-level safety result we want.”


Schuback will present an AIHS webinar on building a mindful, high-performance safety culture on Wednesday 26 February from 2.30-3.30pm. Registrations will close 10.30am on Monday 24 February, and the webinar will be recorded and distributed to paid registered attendees 3-4 days after the event. For more information email, call (03) 8336 1995 or visit the event website.


Article originally published by the Australian Institute of Health and Safety.