Is Zero Harm a SMART Goal?

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By Phil La Duke

Ask any member of the cult of safety what the Goal is and through glassy eyes and a smile that can only be produced by Stockholm Syndrome and you will hear in a zombie-like voice, “Zero Harm, the only acceptable goal can be Zero Harm”. Good goal, no question. Well not really a good goal if you follow the time cherished rule of making SMART goals. SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely.  Is Zero Harm specific, it seems like it at first blush but we need to define harm. Is it harm to workers? What about harm to equipment? How about harm to the bottom line? How about harm to the company’s reputation? How about harm to the environment? How about hurting my feelings? Okay, okay, I’ve made my point, but realistically, since we are talking about harm in the context of the Safety Goal, I will cut the zealots some slack and say it’s probably specific enough for workers to get the drift of what we want to accomplish.

Is zero harm measurable? This one is a bit sticky.  Safety as a profession, function, and pagan religion has defined itself by trying to measure the absence of something, in this case, harm. This is akin to trying to measure the speed of dark (try it). This is a maddening quagmire mess: when we measure injuries (or harm) we typically end up measuring the absence of reported or detected injury.  If there is a hole in the bottom of your boat, it doesn’t matter if you see it or not it’s going to sink. When we set goals our hope at least, is that everyone will work together to achieve that goal, of course. Add to that, that pesky lack of specificity mentioned above and you have a real problem measuring this goal. It’s like the old philosophical question if a man cuts down a tree in the forest and it falls on him killing him does it make a sound?  

Our lack of ability to get a tight measurement on an esoteric concept is why we have indicators which about half the people reading this don’t have a clue what the indicators are telling them (you know who you are).

We can certainly attain zero harm, hell I’ve gone about 6 hours without being injured. So clearly zero harm is attainable, I know even though the specific part of the goal is weak, and the measurable is nebulous, I am unequivocally positive that zero harm can be attained. I cut open some boxes and even DROVE in icy conditions and you know what? Zero Harm, nothing, nil, zip, nada.  But alas, I work from home so there will be no pizza party for the likes of me. Just as well, pizza is a food that will kill Phil so the reward for my not harming me would harm me. Ponder that..yeah, that’s what it feels like to have your mind blown. I have always thought Zero Ham would make a beautiful goal it’s specific (it’s either ham or it ain’t) measurable (97% rat droppings free and it’s ham my friend) attainable? I haven’t eaten any ham today, have you? Relative? Who can’t relate to a ham-free meal? I’m not asking you to swear off pork (although that wouldn’t kill you) Timely: Okay maybe I need to think this through. Is it over between ham and me? Will I never eat it again? Some scenarios are too horrible to visualize and you know the most ironic thing about this is? I don’t even really like ham. So it goes…but what we can all agree on, is that if someone challenges the reasonableness of our goal of zero ham we can reasonably and believably claim it was a typo.

As indicated, Zero Harm is attainable, but is it sustainable? and if so for how long? This is where I have gotten into too many arguments with too many mouth breathers (the kind of person who used to remind the teacher to assign homework just before the bell rings) about how they KNOW Zero Harm is possible because they achieved it. As my daughter tells people whose claim that something is true she doubts because they argue that they’ve seen pictures of it. “I have a picture of my dad walking across Abbey Road with the Beatles but that doesn’t prove it happened. These glassy-eyed worshipers of the One True Goal brag about how many hours (because it’s 24 times more impressive than days) without a reportable, detectable, observed injury. If the goal is to attain zero injuries then every minute that somebody doesn’t get harmed is cause for celebration. HUZZAH!! GO US!!!! That’s why those signs with the number of days or hours without a recordable, detectable, harmful incidents are so important and inspirational. Doggone It I some days that sign is the only thing keeping me from driving the fork truck (you can’t use the most common name for such a vehicle because it’s a trademark and I don’t need big Powered Industrial Vehicles on my ass) off the loading dock is knowing that if I get harmed then we have to start all over with more than 1 hour without a…So if the goal is truly Zero Harm shouldn’t it have a context? And if the goal is forever…well that’s a heck of a long time to go without harm.

When I was taught to set goals I wasn’t taught the SMART acronym (too cute for my taste) instead I was taught a different acronym that I don’t remember but I do remember that measurable and attainable tangible were in there; maybe the acronym was MEAT.  Measurable because the goal should leave you better off than when you started, and attainable, which in this context meant that it was within my power to achieve the goal, and that’s something I think a lot of people fail to recognize in safety is that we can’t control the incredibly intricate, complicated, and maddeningly unpredictable system that is worker safety.  

Trying to impose order on to chaos is the height of madness.

Did you like this post? If so you will probably like my book which can be ordered here I Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business or on Barnes & Nobel.com. Did you hate this post? Did it offend you deeply? Maybe you should organize a book burning (minimum of 150 books) but be sure you are only burning my book, I don’t want you to go to a used book store and buy a bunch of cheap books and stack mine on top.

The book is a compilation of blog posts, guest blogs, magazine article (from around the world) and new material. Much of it is hard to find unless you know where to look. A second and third book has already been green-lighted by the publisher (expect fewer reprints and more new material).

Remember the holidays are coming up and this book makes the perfect gift for the person for which you feel obligated to get something for but don’t really like.

In all seriousness, I have been blogging for free for over 11 years and I think I have earned a bit of revenue so buy the damned book.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

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