Zero harm makes zero sense


There has been a good deal of print and perspiration expended in the OH&S community on the principal of Zero Harm with the proponents of Zero Harm taking the position that no industrial accident is acceptable, regardless of how small it is. There are however, certain problems with their position.

The first is that Zero Harm flies in the face of the risk management principle currently enshrined in OH&S and other industrial safety acts, in the form of various permutations of the SFAIRP principle. If we mandate that a low consequence event is unacceptable regardless of it’s likelihood then there is by definition no acceptable occurrence rate and therefore acceptable risk. Thus with one stroke Zero Harm eliminates a cornerstone principal of risk management.

The next problem is that Zero Harm does not recognise societal risk aversion to high consequence events in that both society (and large organisations) are much more risk sensitive to catastrophic events. From this perspective a dollar spent to prevent a major plant accident is worth more than a dollar spent on a company safety gloves program (for example).

Similarly the question of recoverable versus permanent harm is ignored by the Zero harm concept. By arguing that no accident is acceptable are we really putting a major and permanent disablement or even fatality on the same footing as that of a minor hand injury that will have healed in a week?

Likewise where we have to trade off between the risks of one hazard and risks introduced by the associated safety system that controls the original hazard a position of ‘Zero Harm’ is simply unhelpful in evaluating cost versus benefit (1).

Another problem is that unfortunately the causal mechanisms that lead to minor accidents are simply not the same as those that lead to a major accident. In the example above the effort (and attention) required to keep a plants functional safety at a high level of availability is not the same as that required to minimise the likelihood of worker ‘cuts and hand sprains’. So a preoccupation with a ‘Zero Harm’ policy means that management attention will be focused upon minor accidents because they occur quite often, and not upon the management of high consequence but rarely occurring accidents, see for an example the Deepwater Horizon accident as an example of this.

Finally a preoccupation in reducing occupational risk, begs the question as to what extent do we willingly risk our health and lives outside the workplace or as a society. For example by choosing private rather than public transport in getting to work we make an implicit decision that a higher level of risk is acceptable for the convenience provided. Likewise the safety of major public assets and industrial endeavours are assessed using the principles of risk tolerance and acceptance. The Zero Harm philosophy of the workplace it seems is at odds with how risk is managed at both the societal and personal level.

As with all such mantra’s and management fads Zero Harm does not really bear up under critical scrutiny. As I see it, and being somewhat uncharitable, it has more to do with management insulating themselves from the potential legal consequences of accidents, rather than any greater commitment to safety.


1. For example a fire suppression system may expose personnel to the hazard of asphyxiation if triggered inadvertently, and increase risk in that area, even though it reduces the risk associated with a fire.

One response to Zero harm makes zero sense


    Couldn’t agree more. Even more confusingly, a lot of companies have their zero harm policy almost in the same breathe as their risk management policy. How do they go together? As an engineer, zero harm makes no sense for design. You can’t design for a state of zero risk.