The Zero-Injury Witch Hunt

witch-hunts

By Phil La Duke

Sometime ago I wrote, almost in passing, about the rift that James Reason first identified in the safety community between those who believe that injuries are primarily the result of individual choices or systemic causes. As deep and destructive as this riff, another deeply divisive issue threatens the safety community the argument over the possibility of Zero-Injury goals.

On one side of the argument zealots argue that the only acceptable goal in safety is “Zero-Injuries”. After all, if our goal isn’t the complete elimination of injuries that what our goal? How many people can we kill a year and still consider ourselves successful at providing a safe work environment?

Critics of this thinking counter that the belief that zero injuries can be deliberately achieved and sustained is naïve, even simple-minded. These critics argue that zero injuries can only consistently be achieved when an organization achieves zero risks and that is impossible, at least in any sort of sustainable state.

Most critics of zero injury goals are increasingly reticent to voice their criticism for fear of loss of their livelihoods. This fear is far from unfounded; many Fortune 500 companies have so institutionalized the religious fervor around zero injuries that to question the wisdom of zero-injuries as a goal is to be branded a heretic and to become a pariah. Many of these same companies make “Zero Injuries” a condition of providing services to them.

For my part I believe that zero injuries CAN be achieved, but in most cases most of the most ardent supporters will never achieve it. The reasons are simple:

  1. For an injury to be prevented it must be foreseeable. Anyone who has ever been injured will likely attest to the fact that they “should have seen that coming”, but there are always those bolt-from-the-blue injury causes that we never could have seen coming.
  2. Foresight can only prevent injuries if there is time to act on this foresight. Consider this: you are walking through a store and you notice that the stock on the top of the aisle is stacked too high and before you have time to react it begins to shift. You can foresee that you will be injured but you don’t have time to react; foresight provides you no advantage.
  3. Any foresight must have perfect information. A colleague of mine likes to tell people he is training in hazard recognition that whenever an injury occurs it is because someone either did something they shouldn’t have or didn’t do something they should have. This may sound simplistic but it makes profound sense. What I have found is that in many cases is that the reason people make the choices that they make because they lack perfect information. In other words, people who make decisions erroneously believing that something is true (“I thought it was locked out”) when it was not (yes I realize the redundancy but it reads better that way) or that something wasn’t true (“I didn’t know the gun was loaded”) when it was. That having been said, how often do we truly have perfect information?
  4. Zero-Injuries depends on an extremely low tolerance for risk. Organizations and cultures that reward the risk takers for their bold decision making and “save-the-day” approach to life open themselves up for increased risk and increased risk correlates to increased injuries. You’ll notice I used the word “correlates” rather than causes; some of these companies go years without an injury just because of dumb luck. They operate at a higher risk level and thus a higher probability, but probabilities are just that; not certainties.
  5. Some industries lend themselves to zero-injuries more readily than others. It’s a dirty little secret that some injuries are just plain more dangerous than others. Okay so maybe it’s not all that secret but it isn’t talked about all that openly either. This isn’t to say that all industries can aspire to be safer, but some industries are going to face an uphill battle. Of course all work carries with it some chance of injuries, but a greeter at Walmart is statistically less likely to be gored by a bull than a bullfighter or a rodeo clown. I won’t open the whole can of works that comes with saying that this or that industry is safe, but a quick glance at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics website will prove my point: some industries are intrinsically more dangerous than others.
  6. ZeroInjuries depends on workers accepting onerous controls put on them. While I ardently believe that no one in his or her right mind wants to get hurt, I also believe that we all have our own idea of when the quest for safety becomes ridiculous, intrusive, and downright simple minded. People fight for the right to ride motorcycles despite evidence that suggests that one is much safer in a car. Some of those same people fight for their right to ride motorcycles without a helmet despite evidence that wearing a helmet significantly reduces the chance of head injuries. We all have different tolerances for risk and as long as we do we will have different probabilities of injury.
    Who among us hasn’t violated a safety rule for no better reason than because we thought the rule was stupid, over protective, or otherwise shouldn’t apply to us. Deep down we all harbor a “you’re not the boss of me” or “I don’t want to and you can’t make me” attitude (some of us have it buried deeper than others) that makes us want to passive aggressively resist the safety rules?

So let’s avoid the Zero-Injury witch-hunt. Let’s recognize that we all want the same thing—to hurt fewer workers in the workplace. Let’s acknowledge that whether or not we believe it’s achievable zero-injuries, at least conceptually is a noble pursuit. If you don’t believe it’s possible then at least recognize that you probably believe dozens of crazy, ridiculously implausible things that they don’t buy. And to all of you who would deprive others of their livelihoods and run people out of the business simply because they don’t believe in one of your most cherished beliefs, lighten up; there are lots of right answers and you don’t have a monopoly on the truth.

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