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February 16, 2015

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‘Zero incidents’: too often, it’s just a numbers game

It’s the end of a project and I find myself in a meeting room with upper management from both the client and contractor. The client congratulates the contractor on their outstanding performance throughout the project, with zero fatalities, zero Lost Time Incidents (LTIs) and so forth. The contractor happily accepts the praises he is offered along with the bonus that so often comes along with it.

Despite all this back slapping, the project was not exactly a model of good practice. Personnel would drive down steep mountainous terrain at dark hours (there was no night time driving policy in effect). Staff would remove the safety tape put up by mountaineers, to climb up steep cliffs to get to the site, because it was a slightly shorter route. These are just two examples of a very long list of issues. These habits were often tolerated and even sanctioned by on site management, a lot of times due to production pressures. And yet here they are in this office, congratulating themselves on good HSE management.

The ‘zero incidents’ approach has come under scrutiny quite regularly in safety circles. If you focus on the numbers alone, you can create an environment of false reporting or, on occasion, no reporting at all – especially if the numbers are tied to a bonus. Individuals, organisations and industries are aware of this and agree for the most part. Yet the obsession with numbers over actual performance continues.

In the end, it probably comes down to old habits and convenience. Fatality is an easy issue to measure. You cannot hide an onsite death, and nobody in his or her right mind wants to die on the job. So you can expect a certain level of caution from each individual already. The same goes with LTI’s, usually related to major injury resulting in the person not being able to show up to work. Nobody wants to suffer that sort of pain at work.

But I rarely see measurements that go beyond the numbers and actually measure performance. I don’t mean the numbers of inspections that workers do or the number of JSA’s or other activities they conduct. What I mean is the quality behind it.

Do they take their time when conducting an inspection or JSA? Do they actually produce reasonable documents or just shove it aside until the end of the day and make it to a tick box exercise? How often does site management make a decision against established standards and policies and why? These are just a few examples of what could be established and measured.

By having such monitoring and measuring methods in place, we can then confidently say that the numbers we see are because every reasonable care was taken to ensure nobody dies or nobody gets injured. Until then, it is just a matter of chance.


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Robin Stowell
Robin Stowell
9 years ago

This is the sharp end of the statistics argument in action. Perhaps a scan through these previous articles could direct people into measuring and managing safety more productively.

Vince Butler
Vince Butler
9 years ago

Good article:-
Performance measurement.
Performance culture.
Performance the only game in town
Nothing else matters = Only performance.
Never mind integrity.
Never mind culture + beliefs.
Never mind behaviour.
Never mind honesty.
When ‘performance’ is the ‘only game in town’ that really matters at the detriment of all else .. what happens?:-
Financial crisis
Dead people
Maimed people
Sick people

Yes a ‘performance’ only measure and reporting situation negatively affects macro, micro and the individual. Its OK for a while, but it always catches up, absolutely inevitable!