Posted on: August 25, 2009 Posted by: Diane Swarts Comments: 2

Workers at best ignore ‘zero harm’ buzzwords, at worst they play along, argues safety psychologist and behavioural researcher Corrie Pitzer. He believes that the price tag for ‘zero harm’ is either unaffordable, or defeatist.

Competent risk-taking behaviour is what preserves us. We should increase the repertoire of risk responses, not limit them. Rewards punish people, it seeks behaviour manipulation or control. Workers who ‘fail at safety’ are demoralised and demeaned. Behaviourism is ‘popular’ psychology, like Dr Phil’s ‘relationship advice’ compared to real love.

On a cold day in May, 1995, a runaway underground locomotive in a South African mine should have been stopped by at least eight protection devices, but it fell down a shaft, on top of a cage, and many workers died on that horrible day.

There was a ‘dead man’ switch that was bridged out with copper wire, two gates, an RSJ stopper, two wooden sprag stop blocks, a ‘tank’ trap, a ‘failed start’ procedure, and other systems, all out of action, disabled or broken.

How could accidents be prevented? By installing two or three more safety devices? Probably not, but that is what the employer and the safety profession did.

Our safety philosophy remains naive, mechanical, fallacious, shallow, and a century old. We still believe people’s behaviour, like hazards, could be eliminated or manipulated. Business leaders and safety professionals propagate ‘zero harm’ without checking on the logic or psychological implications.

Safety management remains stuck in the ideas of Frederick Taylor’s ‘scientific management’, which will soon be 100 years old. In this time we have built different types of organisations: bureaucratic, ‘functional’, matrix, learning, and more. Safety managers have recently created ‘safety organisations’, to their credit, aimed at lofty goals like minimising risks and creating sustainable value. But ‘safety organisations’ are killing innovation and preventing communication.

Most CEOs and managers, charged with achieving safe performance, have become like the fabled emperor with no clothes on. He was sold ‘invisible’ clothes by a persuasive visitor, and the people lied to the emperor to avoid shaming him.

Corporate leaders need merely provide vision and guidance on making a clean and sustainable profit. For ‘non-core’ business processes, like human resources management, sustainability, quality, safety and health, leaders rely on specialist advisors.

Safety advice has been consistent on continuous improvement, and most leaders understandably translated that into a goal of ‘zero fatalities’. Knowing that minor incidents had to be managed first, some leaders settled on the apparently ‘ultimate’ goal of ‘zero harm’. That vision, however, is out of touch with psychology, and in line only with the ‘inspirational’ theatrics of ‘popular’ psychology.

We have to expose the fallacies in the supposed ‘zero harm’ motto, and replace it with risk learning and a risk competency ethic.

‘Banning risky behaviour’ is a fallacy

Fallacy: Risk-taking behaviour is the root of business evil, and could be banned. In fact, business is driven by harnessing risk.

Risk creates opportunities and rewards as much as failure. Every operator starting up a piece of equipment, harnesses risk. Business operates at the edge of the human risk envelope.

Competence requires technical skill as well as risk skill, rewarding those most skilled at taking risk, not avoiding risk. Banning risk tolerance, as the ‘zero’ motto implies, is to ban business, and workers know that the motto is just lip service.

Peter Senge describes learning organisations as places “where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, and where people are continually learning to see the whole (reality) together.” In ‘safety organisations’ these ideals are unacceptable. They want consistency, repeatability, routines, controls, compliance; not experimentation and deviance.

They want to eliminate ‘human error’ by ‘rewarding’ conformity, but they fail to see the human capacity to respond in varying ways, to grow innate abilities to make judgements and modify behaviour, to sense threats and respond with lightning assurance. We should increase the workers repertoire of risk responses, not limit them.

To create a learning organisation, we should allow risk-taking, encourage it, support it and elicit it, for the sake of safety and profit. Instead, safety is killing risk competency and business, softly, ‘safely’, surely.
Your highness, leaders trumpeting ‘zero harm’ are surrounded by followers keen to make a high-sounding noise.

‘Identify incident causes’ is a fallacy

Fallacy: incident causes are identifiable and teach us to prevent similar incidents. In fact, the exact combination of direct causes and unique pathways of any incident are never repeated. We do not have the science or capacity to quantify and reduce business dynamics into chunks we could understand and manage.

Therefore we work with a small number of root causes, as if they were dials that could prevent ‘similar accidents’. The highly visible and emotional nature of fatal and serious accidents, distort human perception. Fatal and serious ones are few, with countless ‘misses’ of all kinds between.

Trends in accidents do allow management of the ‘critical few’ by protocols, with reasonable effect where obvious malpractices are involved. Most causes are more hidden, more complex, and unrelated to ‘facts’ or trends.

‘Safety rules are productive’ is a fallacy

Fallacy: safety rules support productivity. In fact, there is no causal link. ‘Safe’ and ‘productive’ could occur independently, allowing four types of organisations, including an unsafe productive one, or a safe unproductive one.

When Phil Rosenzweig tested research by notable authors like Jim Collins, Peters and Waterman, he noted that claims of ‘greatness’ for certain companies did not hold up. Most of the ‘great’ companies have lost their greatness and some of those once branded not so great, are now greater. Rosenzweig illustrates that business performance causes could not be scrutinised, because the studies are retrospective, suffering from the bias of hindsight, known as the ‘halo effect’.

Fantastic safety records, with millions of hours accident or incident free (even it were true, which it is not), there is no way of knowing what ‘almost happened’ and what could soon happen.

Compliance to safety rules often lead to death, as during evacuation on the burning oil rig Piper Alpha. Behaviour modification, the basis of a whole safety paradigm, creates ‘dumbness’.

Your highness, a blindly compliant organisation is not a safer or a more productive one, it is a stupid one.

‘Incident rates prove safety’ is a fallacy

Fallacy: incident measurements prove safety levels. In fact, accident and incident rates result from luck, and the measurement protocol. Workers who believe in luck are not backwards after all.
‘Safety’ stats are lies, we all know they are lies, but no one will tell the boss that if he seems to firmly believe in his measurement toolbox.

Business operates by measuring everything in large quantities and qualities, but incidents are ‘few’, do not depend on a limited number of ‘inputs’, and are not a ‘result’.

‘Accident data’ are crudely treated with statistical methods, creating moving rates. The minute size of the accident data makes detection of variation impossible and yet it is used in studies for making management decisions and evaluations of safety interventions. Safety ‘information’ is at best useless, at worst dangerous. Data distortion also arise from Incurred But Not Reported (IBNR) and Reported But Not Incurred (RBNI). And workers know this.

Management know it too, but can not help themselves, they want to ‘show results’ and will accept body count decline as a ‘result’. “Well done. Another safe day!” What he means is: “Do not dare having accidents!” And workers know this.

Reported But Not Incurred (RBNI) occurs in organisations where compensation for accidents are attractive, or where accident reporting is used as leverage in the power play between management and workers, often by unions.

Your highness, your data is invalid and distorted. People tell you what you want to hear and dress deceit in statistics.

‘Punishment and reward’ are fallacies

Fallacy: ‘safety’ graphs are a basis for reward and punishment of workers. In fact, rewards support production procedures, but destroy safety management. Rewards are incentives to conceal incidents and distort behaviour towards the ‘flavour of the month’, making a farce or ‘game show’ of safety, and detracting from trust in management.

A bonus for installing roof bolts, for example, led to months of installing roof bolts cut in half! Production was not affected, but neither was safety, and culture took a turn for the worse. But even discovery of the fraud was swept under the carpet, and other rewards continue. Only a major tragedy would reveal the truth, but would it eradicate ‘safety rewards’?

Rewards punish people. ‘Carrot’ is like ‘stick’, because it seeks behaviour manipulation or control. And the losing teams do not get the ‘rewards’. Some ‘rewards’ are handed out to all, with less side effect, and therefore to less effect.

Rewards for a lack of accidents imply that the goal is based on maintaining the risk of accidents! Rewards incur the drawn-out punishment of maintaining risk, inviting stress.

Rewarded workers who ‘fail’ at ‘safety’ afterwards, are demoralised and often demeaned as ‘losers’.
Rewards fracture relationships into ‘us and them’. Managers control rewards, workers control the means to attain the goal. Safety bonuses pit employees against each other, though it is purported to foster collaboration. Injure workers fail doubly, and suffer guilt to boot.

A collaborative workplace allows mistakes, investigation, and learning, even if at the mercy of chance. Rewards change behaviour for the worse. Rewards ignore causes and focus on ‘results’.

Your highness, rewards and punishments create deceit, not motivation. Are you rewarding deceit, despite your sincerity? Beware of the ‘results’ you want, for you are sure to get those ’results’.

‘Zero aspiration’ is a fallacy

Fallacy: ‘zero loss incidents’ or ‘zero harm’ is a morally correct motto, equal to a commandment. In fact, if business and labour did agree on that moral imperative, every organisation would be bound by law to spend at least half its profit on safety. We could automate all operations with robots.

No business could do that, but all would be willing to approach the goal in incremental steps. We should admit that some workers could die, and that some probably would be injured, and continuously seek new ways to reduce our risks. Instead, ‘zero harm’ has become a new table-thumping gospel, while everyone knows it is not true, not in our nature, and to some extent not even manageable.

Failures occur even in nature, due to change

James Reason wrote that “zero conveys a dangerous misrepresentation” of the realities of risk: the illusion “that your safety endeavours will end in a decisive victory one day.”

Is it possible for people to run a business a ‘zero accidents’ or ‘zero harm’, therefore at ‘zero risk’? Given human nature, and the foreseeable nature of investors, authorities, managements, systems and workers, of course not. Risk is human nature. We will never accept a speed limit of 5km per hour, or the cost of enforcing single-lane automated public transport. It would be unreasonably expensive, some industries would suffer, and millions would die of starvation.

Some managers play word games with their understanding of ‘zero harm’ as an ‘aspiration’, but could an athlete be inspired to run 100 metres in 2.5 seconds, or a mile in one minute? No motivational model supports this drivel, yet some managers make a motto of it, choosing to ignore all the fallacies and self-delusion that ‘zero’ reveal.

Safety managers around the world have allowed this game into our safety policies, goal statements, reports and signage. Like ‘global warming’, the debate has been declared ‘conclusive’ and opposing voices are silenced.

The safety profession has accepted rules for a game it can not win. Your highness, the price tag for ‘zero harm’ is either unaffordable, or defeat.

‘Zero motto’ is a fallacy

Fallacy: ‘Nobody gets hurt’ or ‘Safety is our core value’ or ‘The goal is zero’. In fact, workers understand that the glib and cute motto is false. False slogans merely accuse people. Family photos on posters accuse workers of not caring for their families. Worse, ‘zero’ slogans accuse workers as ‘unbelievers’ and induce guilt.

Safety managers, with due respect, know little of organisational and individual psychology, yet they practice a discipline that most directly affects people’s culture. They design the interventions, slogans, communications and incentives supposed to herd people towards complex behavioural and cultural goals, like so many cattle.

Your highness, these mottos are empty window dressing. They damage your credibility and fail your team daily. Your people say they believe, only because you say that is what you want to hear. If they did believe the motto, would that make them work safer?  There is no evidence for this.

‘Rules’ are fallacies

Fallacy: Safety rules give predictable results and save lives. In fact, the complexity of risk management is proven by our many and diverse interventions. Most rules operate on the traditional ‘logic’ of a ‘hierarchy of controls’ as in engineering, or avoidance by procedures, administration, or personal protective equipment, but these are all complex to implement.

Controls come in hindsight, against a particular set of circumstances that produced major ‘accidents’. The next accident will be different, irrespective of ‘controls’, and induce different ‘controls’.
People adapt to new rules by a mechanism named ‘risk compensation’, and they adapt in unpredictable ways. Risk is a probability, dynamic, fluid, iterative. The perception of risk takers, being all workers, change from moment to moment. Risk ‘migrates’ from one control intervention to the next.

People maintain a ‘natural level’ of risk that they tolerate. When one tolerable risk is closed out, people seek another. The safety profession remains at war with human nature, instead of raising risk competency.

Rules are usually designed to reflect well on the intentions of the rulers. Your highness, rules do not change behaviour.

The ‘human factor’ is a fallacy

Fallacy: behavioural safety’s success prove that worker behaviour is the problem. In fact, behaviour is caused by many conditions and other antecedents, each subject to change.

Behaviour reveals only the observable element in human motivation, but conceals the dynamics of values, risk cognition, higher motivation and culture.

Everyone talks about values as a list of vague concepts, based on an extrinsic management model. The concepts sound good, but deviously confirm stereotypes about people. It patronises people at the level of Pavlovian dogs subjected to operant conditioning, entrenched by the ‘result’ of going home safely. The aim is good old compliance to stupefying rules.

Behavioural perfection does not exist. We need risk competence to see, judge, sense, and take risks, to expand the boundaries of response and learning.

Your highness, behaviourism is ‘popular’ psychology, like Dr Phil’s ‘relationship’ advice compared to real love. People do not follow the ABC formula like rats and dogs.

Flogging the wrong paradigm

Our failures in safety performance around the world, in many industries, are inexplicable, considering the huge effort and resources we throw at behaviour. Considering the relatively little progress we have made in safety thinking, stagnation is no surprise.

Behavioural safety of the 1990s was aimed to get ‘compliance’ from an ‘errant’ workforce.

Safety management has become false and farcical, and ‘zero harm’ is the Great Safety Swindle perpetuating rules, systems, cards, trinkets, mottos, measurements, rates, indicators, priorities, commitments. Workers know all this as ‘PowerPoint slides safety’.

Safety lies locked away in organisational culture, risk competence and cognitive psychology. We need believable goals. We must lead safety, not ‘manage risk’. Risk perception and human motivation fall outside the skills and knowledge set of most mine managers, safety managers and supervisors, who are charged to lead us to safety goals. These good people are not trained to do it.

Workers at best ignore the ‘zero harm’ buzz, at worst they play along. Many surveys contain this multi-choice question: ‘How committed are you to achieving zero harm? None at all; Little, Quite, Very or Extremely?’ One worker told me that he thought: ‘You have to be kidding me!’ But he dutifully selected ‘Extremely’.

Your highness, dare I say that you have no clothes on.

* Extract from a referenced paper presented to the Australian National Safety Council in 2008, and published by the USA National Safety Council. Corrie Pitzer is a safety psychologist and CEO of Safemap International.

* See comment by Harold, and response by the author, Corrie Pitzer, below the ‘Related Posts’ block.


2 People reacted on this

  1. Corrie, this is an interesting and enjoyable article. I think a lot of people will identify with your views on safety professionals perpetuating the “Great Safety Swindle” as you put it.

    I am not so sure that the “Zero aspiration” is so much of a fallacy as you claim. If people take reasonable precautions and use their common sense, what are the actual chances of an accident? One in 100 000 in a year? This is pretty close to zero accidents on a percentage scale.

    I like the concept of “risk competence”, where people are encouraged to see, judge, sense and take risks to expand the boundaries of response and learning. What I am grappling with is how this will help us eliminate the really basic things that people just don’t do. For example:

    – not wearing protective clothing and equipment supplied to them

    – not following an agreed procedure for operating or maintaining a machine

    – not wearing a seatbelt when driving a motor vehicle

    People get away with this neglect of basics 99% of the time. Yet investigations into safety incidents show that most of them occur as a result of these basics not being carried out.

    If I can get away with these shortcuts 99% of the time, how will I become aware of the risk I am taking.

    So I don’t really blame a safety officer for becoming like a policeman getting people to apply rules. This can become a full-time occupation in itself, especially when company managers themselves encourage the shortcuts. -Harold Robinson

  2. Harold, Thank you for your comments and I am keen to respond to them.
    You are correct that the risk of an accident (with precautions) is very small, but it obviously depends on what risk you are talking about. I am not sure what your probability refers to vehicle accidents? Definitely not that small, and no matter what precautions you take, in a dynamic world where someone else is taking less precautions, you are likely to suffer loss. None of the three things you mentioned, nor anything else, could reduce the risk to absolute zero. This is a natural law. Zero is an absolute.
    There are many examples of road behaviour outside the agreed procedure that is actually safer than sticking with procedure, for example, staying in the speed limit while everyone else is overtaking, exposes you. It is sometimes better to break the rules.

    The second problem is that as soon as people do the things you mention (wear PPE, follow procedure, believe in zero) their sense of alertness diminishes (risk homeostasis) and your chance of an accident now increases.

    Of course there will never be a single answer to safety, but we should improve. We could approach the limits of technology, skill, know-how etc, but long before we get there, we would run out of money. The fallacy of zero is entrenched in the laws of nature and unless we acknowledge those, we are chasing windmills. Our thinking must go beyond the limitations and traps in that concept. We must ensure safety as a passion, a journey, and continuous effort.
    Knowing that we could not achieve zero is more motivational than the delusion that we could! -Corrie Pitzer, CEO, Safemap

Leave a Comment