President & CEO, Energy Safety Canada
Zero harm concepts are a mindset in which all accidents and injuries are avoidable. These are often referred to as target zero, mission zero, beyond zero, or similar, with a common belief: if you’re not aiming for zero, you’re not making your best effort. At what point does striving to reach an improbable goal become more important than what’s actually happening?
When we look back at safety trends in Canada’s energy industry over the past 30 years, we see substantial improvements in safety performance. But what got us to this point is not what will take us to the next level. We must be receptive to changing our approach to safety. That’s why Energy Safety Canada and other thought leaders are moving away from the messaging of zero incidents and injuries.
Zero harm is a mindset in which all accidents and injuries are avoidable. The next step in the evolution of safety is to shift our view and create capacity in a system so that when humans make mistakes — and they will— the system can accommodate them.
Those striving to move away from zero harm messaging focus on the fact that when work is conducted, there’s always some risk. Safeguards and training can reduce the chance of a serious injury from one in a hundred to one in a million, but some risk always remains.
First and foremost, safety is about reducing risk
Safety should not be about the number of incidents, but about outcomes and what we can learn from them. If a company is seen to have a high number of incidents, some view that as an indicator of how unsafe the organization is. But others see it as having an engaged workforce that’s committed to reporting and learning from all incidents, even minor ones.
Creating a psychologically safe environment allows workers to speak up and challenge a safety system’s potential blind spots. Workers should feel empowered to communicate all aspects of work — good and bad. A worker voicing a concern could mean the difference between ending the day at home or in the hospital.
Worker engagement: the foundation for continuous improvement
When expectations are unclear or workers feel a goal is unrealistic, it leads to disengagement, regardless of good intentions. People start to go through the motions because what they experience day-to-day contradicts what they are being told. Zero is an oversimplified view of a complex work environment.
Achieving lasting organizational change is a gradual and methodical process built on aligned views, common ground, and clarity on what actions are needed to reach the goal. Progression takes time, and by learning from incidents through their perspective, workers are more likely to participate in being part of the solution.
There’s a more effective and long-lasting approach to improving safety performance than driving down numbers. Moving away from zero is an opportunity to engage workers, improve organizational learning, and implement controls that increase an organization’s capacity to fail safely.