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The Zero Harm Workplace – Harmful or Helpful?

The Zero Harm Workplace – Harmful or Helpful?
09 December 2020

Marisa Firkins, IOSH, explains more about a controversial health and safety subject – could Zero Harm cause more harm than good?

Firkins is the MD of Safety Forward Ltd, a health and safety consultancy. Before she set up Safety Forward in May 2014, Marisa worked for 22 years as an investigator for the National Crime Agency, where she developed her career as a Health and Safety Advisor.

Firkins self-funded her NEBOSH (National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health) in her own time, driven by a strong belief in fairness and negotiation in the workplace, and she acted voluntarily as a “voice of the workforce/people” at board level.


Marisa Firkins

Picture: a photograph of Marisa Firkins


Harmful or Helpful?


Zero harm: a subject surrounded by controversy. Whilst attractive in principle what is the reality? Could Zero Harm cause more harm than good? Defeating its whole purpose, however well-intentioned.

The issue of safety and how it is managed is what remains important. Risk will always exist in the workplace. Key priorities are finding strategies for facilities management teams to reduce both the risks, incidents of personal injuries, and the potentially devastating effects; morally, ethically and financially.

If it encourages a “sweep under the carpet" culture based on fear, the consequences of tripping over said carpet could be too awful to contemplate. Meaning instead of learning from our mistakes and changing processes for better outcomes, we could be hiding them, losing the opportunity to learn from them and suffering far-reaching effects. Company culture is a major influence, determining where people want to work.


What are the Pros and Cons of Zero Harm in the Workplace?


The ideal of Zero Harm is that we will care for our employees through cultural change, encouraging graduates and apprentices to bring life and innovative ways of looking into health and safety.

Pros include:


  • It focuses facilities management teams on prioritising strategies to reduce risks and reduce incidents of personnel injuries.
  • It provides a business target, i.e. statistic KPIs.
  • It aspires to a recognisable, industry-wide incentive.
  • It provides a simple message.
  • People don’t want accidents: for moral, ethical, reputational and financial reasons.


But what about the cons?

  •  It can cause issues to be “brushed under the carpet”.
  • Zero Harm can create a fear of adversely affecting safety statistics.
  • This can cause fear generally together with anxiety over losing one’s job.


The reality below the surface of Zero Harm is sobering. You could have a First Aid Box full of wrappers and minimal accident reports, but do you know the reality of the health and safety culture within your business? It is controversial to put it mildly.


“Old School” Mindset?


In my experience “old school” thinkers like the concept of Zero Harm. Yet it can create a culture of mistrust because people/employees fear the repercussions of speaking out. Trust, open conversations about safety issues, working together toward a common goal, we believe is the best solution to avoiding a culture of mistrust. Do as I say, parent/child style management creates such distrust. Open conversations allow lessons to be learned and encourage a more adult, effective style of management.

High staff turnover combined with low morale is costly. To retain your best talents, employees need to know they are important no matter what position, from shop floor to CEO.

JFK visiting the NASA space centre, famously asked a janitor:  “What are you doing?” The janitor responded: “Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

Mark Zuckerberg, Google founder and CEO comments: “Purpose is that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we are needed, that we have something better ahead to work for.”


Financial Benefits of Effective Risk Management


  • It’s easier to retain staff. Listening to employees, with employees knowing they are being genuinely listened to, increases morale.
  • A high staff turnover is costly, both monetarily and in reduced production.
  • Staff leaving = Investment in training and experience lost forever.
  • Companies that invest in employee experience are 4 x more profitable, according to the Harvard Business Review. Productivity increases by 22 per cent from happy workers in comparison to unhappy ones, says the Social Market Foundation.
  • There’s two x higher revenue generally for organisations that score highest in culture, technology and physical environment, according to Employee Experience Advantage.



Striving for a Zero Harm Utopia


A report by Anglia Ruskin University states: Through varied Brand Zero programmes, the industry is striving for a utopia, however, the methodology – with a focus on measurement and numbers – do not reconcile with the workforce vision of Zero, practically in the workplace.

The workforce often feels zero is unachievable, therefore Zero Harm is idealistic and futurist, but not relevant to current safety perception.

Zero Harm could be accused of distracting from questions that should be asked about on-site safety, whereas numbers and statistics risk overshadowing more important and pressing considerations of practical health and safety.


“People are not the problem, but the solution.” 


Clive Lloyd, a senior figure devoted to health and safety leadership and culture development has worked extensively with senior leaders of many global organisations, named among top 50 Global thought leaders and influencers on culture by Thinkers360. His straight-talking rhetoric describes next level Beyond Zero as “a particularly deranged platitude”.

His book, Next Generation Safety Leadership, based on years of experience in high-risk industries, provides safety leaders and their organisations with a compelling case for change.

A key predictor of safety performance is trust, and its associated components of integrity, ability and benevolence (care). Believing the next generation of safety leaders will take the profession forward by creating trust and psychological safety and actionable goals to enable positive change. Practical applications translate into a clear strategy, written with real-life stories and humour, within high-risk industries.

Clive Lloyd believes people are not the problem, but the solution. The workplace is changing. To attract and retain the best talent, health and safety is key. Successful businesses reap the benefits and attract the best candidates.

Picture: a photograph of a Hawkins Construction Group site. Image Credit James Bastable

Article written by Marisa Firkins | Published 09 December 2020


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