Author Bio ▼

Mark Ormond is managing director of JOMC culture change consultancy practice. Mark has been instrumental in building programmes to support business performance improvement through cultural and behavioural change.

September 29, 2014

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Five reasons why you’ll never achieve zero harm

Mark Ormond, managing director, JOMC: zero harm has become a corporate brand rather than a meaningful vision delivered with the right programme


Zero harm is an honourable intention, but it’s been misappropriated

It is always energising to hear a company say they’re aiming for zero harm. In 15 years of improving cultures, few things say more to me about a company’s commitment to wellbeing. It reassures me that there are people out there who get it: that no one deserves to be hurt at work.

However, zero harm has become a more of a corporate brand than a meaningful vision for a culture. Put simply, zero harm is the right thing to say and little more. It has become a message conveniently plastered everywhere for short-term commercial gain, either to win more work or to say: “look – we’re focused on the right things” to shareholders.

Hopefully your organisation is focused on the correct intention behind zero, but more often than not, when safety vision becomes zero, performance comes nowhere near.

Here are five reasons why that might be the case:

  1. Zero harm works for senior managers, but not the workforce:

Admittedly it’s a powerful statement of intent from the boardroom when a CEO declares a zero Injury target. Yet how does that translate to the workforce? What does that mean on the front-line and what changes? Meaning isn’t clearly expressed, disengagement follows and later resentment.

  1. Zero harm doesn’t take account of the tribes:

Whether you like it or not, your organisation is composed of different tribes of people with conflicting interests. So safety performance is often seen competitively between those tribes, meaning your zero target drives reporting underground, rather than out into the open where people would learn from valuable data like near-misses.

  1. Zero harm is practically impossible:

When senior management declare zero, they often fail to emphasise that it’s a long-term aspiration and that it won’t happen overnight. So unless people understand the vision behind your journey to stronger safety culture, each time an incident happens it’s just another nail in the zero coffin.

  1. Zero harm is an outcome, not a vision:

Without good engagement and communication with your workforce, zero becomes just another target like all the others. It’s mistaken for a number to write in a box, and all the good intentions behind your vision are lost in cold, hard figures.

  1. Zero harm is a cliché:

If you must use zero in your safety campaigns then bring it to life, that means thinking creatively about how you sell your vision to your workforce and make zero mean something relevant in their everyday lives. There are so many different ways to engage your workforce, especially in the process of creating that vision in the first place. Talk   about what really matters to them – that way you’ll make it resonate with them personally.

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William Johnston

At last

Some common sense on this matter! I have been saying much the same thing for years but not so well.

Well said and hats off for flying against the ZERO harm winds.


Bob Wallace
At last; an article which actually makes sense and is not simply a regurgitation of what the legislation states or a list of things which can work in a perfect world!! Zero harm is unachievable and the sooner we all realise this, the better. Then we can concentrate upon the true nature of OH&S, which is preventing the significant injuries and illnesses and not focussing on minor cuts, minor MH injuries (primarily due to sedentary and lifestyle factors), DSE and the plethora of insignificant issues which too many so called safety professionals fill their day with. The higher the risk… Read more »
John Brookes

We must have a Zero Harm mission statement, how would it appear to Clients and workers alike if we said we were aiming to hurt/injure no more than the industry average. We must aim for Zero, as any number would be unacceptable. I agree it is an un-achievable target but it is a target non the less. Lets keep striving for as few accidents/incidents as possible and hopefully we can drive down the AFRs as much as possible.

Barry Cooper

We don’t have to have zero harm. As previously stated, it’s a cliché, looks good on the posters, but doesn’t connect with the workforce; it drives accident reporting underground, because the workforce think they will be blamed for the accident and the failure to achieve zero harm; it’s an unachievable aim unfortunately.

Bill Robb
Mark, I disagree with the points in your article in so many ways: 1. Zero is achievable .. you can see it. On one rig or one ship for a whole day they have zero accidents and incidents. That is ZERO. So how can you claim ZERO is not possible? What you are mixing up is that the ability to stay at ZERO forever! No one is claiming that. 2 What other target should management express? .. Only two lost fingers, or only one death, of only three people off work with a back injury. The only goal is zero.… Read more »
Paul Lawrence

The point Mark is making, is that in most cases management is all talk and little if no action. Which is my experience is a lot of HS people.

I would hardly call having no accidents on a single day achieving ZERO HARM. Luck maybe.

ZERO HARM must always be the aim that is never quite achieved. If is most of us by nature will become complacent and then accidents will happen.

Mr B J Mann

I’ve heard stories of people being transferred to other countries for treatment, or even not reporting/not getting properly treated for even quite serious injuries on rigs so that teams wouldn’t miss “health” and “safety” targets.

As the article says, it just creates a box-ticking, blame-avoiding target-culture that helps no one.

And why did so many die on Piper Alpha? Because no one wanted to miss targets (albeit financial/production ones).

Well, that worked, didn’t it!

Ian Hutchings

A good article and very thought provoking. I have always seen ‘zero’ as more of a philosophy than an actual target. It’s what people actually do that counts, every small percentage of different action to build into a larger dynamic. Too often, usually in construction & civild in my experience, it’s banded about and companies are almost ‘told’ to do something around behaviour, regardless of whether it’s effective or not.

Percy Smith

I agree with you Mark. At RWE npower Retail our aspiration is zero harm, but our more realistic mission
statement is “Ensure we have no fatal or serious injury accidents and manage all other accidents to as low
a level as possible” this chimes with what is possible in the real world.
We believe we can prevent the first two…but if anyone knows how to stop someone tripping down a
kerb in the public space, or tripping over their own feet, you are about to make some serious money….
…..because its impossible!!

Bill McGonagle
. It is an interesting view point. I am not sure I agree its entirety. As you say it is what’s behind it and what is driving it. It is no more meaningless than setting an arbitrary reduction figure, without any understanding or strategy of how you intend to achieve it. There are differing viewpoints; to set a figure above zero implies that you accept that you will harm that amount, probably not a good starting point some may say. I do take the point you make on such claims being visionary but I also believe that setting figures that… Read more »
Mr B J Mann

A number of posters have said something similar, one saying should we aim for “Only two lost fingers…..”.

No, we can aim for “as near to zero harm as possible”.

But if we say we are aiming, for “zero” harm then we are setting ourselves up for a fall. People will be disillusioned, people will not just massage figures, but will have to hide all of them to make sure they don’t miss targets, nothing will be learned, and so harm will go up, not down (although, like the crime and road accident stats, the figures will, miraculously, fall regardless of reality!).

Keith Shaw
Hi Mark, I really admire your courage to put this in to print & would be interested to see the responses. I must admit I am a firm beliver that behavioural safety (and health too!) is a vital addition to improve working lives & places. As you say the problem is that for some the use of any of the bespoke BBS programmes ends up being just another type or level of training strategy. I was extremely fortunate to be part of the Debut Services (lend lease) Project Slam team where we were using the IIF programme as part of… Read more »
David Buchanan

A nice and simple summary.
I remember being presented with this as a 3 year absolute target during an interview for a major construction and engineering company back in 2009. I replied that whilst it was a laudable goal and certainly one to aim for, in practice it would not work simply because it does not account for random events and simple human error.
I didn’t get the job.

Paul Lawrence
Some very true comments. Sound like the last company I worked for. Certain managers always want to appear as if they were putting safety first. Yet if you got into the detail of what they were doing. In a lot of cases their methods of doing jobs actually increase the risk. In one case a roadside job that eventually took two guys 15 minutes, to safely do. It would have taken 10 guys 2hours to do, if it had been done the way the area manager wanted it done and would have left the company liable to being sued if… Read more »

Very good points made. Zero seems to be an endless bandwagon that most companies are on and doesn’t really inspire openness, transparency, trust, and creativity. Zero is perceived as an absolute and as we all know this would be near impossible to achieve.. so what do you do when you don’t get there? Does it motivate us? Should we have a zero tolerance for managers who implement it when it cant be achieved?
I’m glad to see questioning and awareness raising both here and other publications or articles on the web!

Stephen Penney
I can understand the comments that you make in generalising how many organisations may approach zero harm as just another buzzword; but that is not true of all organisations, and those that commit to a safety culture change involving all staff as part of their zero harm philosophy have seen some very dramatic improvements. Yes there will always be the odd idiot, and with the best will in the world sometimes accidents happen; but I have to applaud those who genuinely want their organisations to be zero harm and are active in doing something about it. Even if zero harm… Read more »
Kelvin Vine

I am sorry but I fail to see the point of this article. You have made several statements as fact without reference or supporting evidence whatsoever. Without evidence, this is not an informative article it is just a rant. I can’t see what insight a health and safety professional reading this is supposed to take away. Perhaps it would have been better to focus your article on an analysis of exactly what zero harm means, the pros and cons of the concept and how to explain this to a CEO in 30 seconds.

John Bartlett

At last! Well written. By saying zero is not achievable does not mean we are being flippant about safety and people lives and health, far from it, just realistic!

Nigel Bryson
ZERO HARM is an aspiration as was powered flight, sending a man to the moon and Sunderland winning the FA Cup in 1973. Those who believe it cannot be achieved – by default – must be able to predict the future. Yet there are already numerous examples where hazards have been eliminated and people are no longer being harmed by their work activity. They may, of course, be harmed by what they do to themselves. About 20 years ago I read of a Japanese research project that was based on robotics. They were trying to build an exoskeleton that when… Read more »
Bill Robb
A most interesting discussion and revealing how we think about safety. 1. Every day we can see zero accidents, so there is no dispute about zero being possible. A week , a month a year … the challenge we face is staying at zero as long as possible. Don’t be put off with the existential dilemma .. striving for something we will never achieve forever. 2.When Percy said no fatalities and serious injuries.. is that not zero fatalities and serious injuries? 3.What is the difference between an aspiration and a target? 4. If you don’t set your target at zero… Read more »
Quentin Emery
To err is human, as long as we have people involved in the process there will be accidents. However we say that Safety Culture is “what normally goes on around here”. Aiming for what normally happens is for us not to have accidents is key. We want that to be the norm. Then when it does go wrong, we use a Just Culture approach to get to the root cause to ensure it doesn’t happen again. I like the aim “journey to zero” as it is the journey that is important, as we realise that we won’t reach the destination… Read more »
Mr B J Mann
Another, similar, nonsense that gets my goat is “No Gloves – No Entry”. What gloves? Woolly gloves (to keep your hands warm and minimise the chance of HAVS?)? Marigolds (to keep them dry, ditto?)? Chemical protection? Biological? (Radiation-proof while we’re at it – that ol’ Sun can cause some nasty burns!) Leather? Chain mail? Armour plated?! What did the Risk Assessment say? In fact, has anyone EVER seen the Risk Assessment that bans entry to sites without gloves? Oh, and what measures were taken to eliminate, substitute for, or minimise the original risks assessed, and what general precautions were put… Read more »

A good article and one which will resonate with most health and safety practitioners.

The ‘Zero’ is nothing more than corporate mantra. Some might say it’s aspirational – true, but what about reality? We can’t even prevent slips, trips and falls, never mind more serious incidents.


Zero harm is achievable in a short term, but in the long run better not try it!

Rob Holliday

I think that zero harm is a superordinate goal. Set at the highest level of leadership but that no ones at the time really knows how to achieve. It is not a departmental objective. Superordinate goals have been set throughout history, some examples are included in the posts here. At the time it was not clear how they would be achieved, but they were. Usually by intermediate steps. Those steps are what we have to define in the individual contexts of our organisations on the road to this impossible dream.


excellent put up, very informative. I’m wondering why the opposite experts of this sector do not understand this. You must continue your writing. I am sure, you have a great readers’ base already!

Bill Robb

Members of the workforce achieve ZERO every day, so it is just plain wrong to say it cannot be achieved.
This is one of the worst safety articles I have read in a long time – wrong on every point made..

Bill Robb

For all those who refuse to accept ZERO as a goal/target/KPI (whatever you want to call it, I just ask:
1. How many fatalities are you aiming for in your organisation this year?
2. How many chopped off hands?
The answer is obvious.
It is time safety professionals stop hiding behind the excuse of zero not being possible. It is and we prove it every day – don’t we?