The Fallacy of ZERO

The ZERO mantra has become embedded within the modern safety discussion; so embedded that we promote ‘Zero Harm’, ‘Mission Zero’ or ‘Target Zero’ on corporate websites, posters, and shirts. Zero vision programs may inspire some momentary increased commitment to safety from some and sound (on the surface) to be a very noble and pure goal, but they may also cause detachment in others who feel it to be an unattainable goal and can also constrain our programs to focus solely on preventing accidents.

Here lies the deeper truth – fewer incidents = more fatalities. A 2017 study (Sheratt & Dainty) examined the top 20 construction companies in the United Kingdom over 4 years and found:

· There were four fatal accidents for companies with a zero safety vision

· Where were zero fatal accidents for companies without a zero safety vision

· There were 214 major injuries for companies with a zero safety vision

· There were 135 major injuries for companies without a zero safety vision

A similar study was conducted in aviation in 2000 (Barnett & Wang, MIT) that showed that passenger mortality risk is the highest in airlines that report the fewest incidents. This, of course, contradicts a commitment to a zero target, since achieving zero actually increases the risk that passengers will be killed. The same results have been replicated time and time again throughout multiple industries both in studies and in real-life examples such as Deepwater Horizon and the Texas City Disaster. Could it be that our predisposition with ZERO has caused more harm than good?

So what’s the learning? There are numerous truths we uncover from examining the “Zero Paradox;” we begin to understand that serious and minor events are not predictive of each other, we find that over time zero vision has caused us to limit our learning to only how we “failed to prevent a serious event” as opposed to how we “failed to control the serious outcome,” and that ultimately zero erodes trust which leads to less reporting which in turn leads to less deliberate learning. To learn from failure, we must first understand that failure WILL occur. We must give room for failure – zero eliminates that.

These studies concluded that there is a need to de-bureaucratize safety and that it is time to abandon zero mantras and instead implement more contingent, nuanced and authentic approaches to safety in practice. Industry has examples of excellent safety programs; yet, these programs continue to have fatalities at an unfortunately stable rate. Thus, we are being forced to think and manage our operations and systems differently in order to get new and better outcomes.