Time to Rethink Our Zero Injury Goals as a Measure of Safety

Alan D Quilley CRSP

February 2009

 I’m probably going to go to “Safety Guy Inferno” for this, but I’m going to say it anyway. You see, I’ve come to realize that having ZERO injuries is not the best definition of safety. In fact, setting Zero as the ultimate safety goal actually demoralizes the very people we need to motivate to make our places of work safe.

Oh I can already hear the email programs opening to send me a flood of nasty emails about my not believing “all injuries can be prevented”. Let me make myself perfectly clear: “I believe that all injuries can be prevented “so stop typing that email and please read the rest of the article.

 Some Fundamentals

Here are some of my fundamental beliefs and some of the logic that tell me that Zero injuries isn’t a definition of “safety” and that we need to re-examine what we talk about and what we recognize as success. I believe with great certainty that injuries are a result of energy hitting us with a force greater than our bodies can withstand or that our bodies don’t get the energy we need (food, water, oxygen). If that’s the case, then a state of “safe” will be achieved when we can reasonably expect that uncontrolled energy can’t hit us and that the energy we need is there for us. It’s very much about the act of not taking risks we don’t have to when we are trying to produce a good or service.

So if we set the goal of Zero injuries and we don’t have any injuries then we must have reached our goal. Wait, I understand being happy about the result but I know that this is simply not logical nor is it even wise to say that we have been “safe” because we’ve had no injuries. Since we all know by now that not being injured while we do risky work happens a great deal of the time. This is akin to giving someone an annual safety award for being a “good ducker” and not getting hurt when all the time they have been taking terrible risks. A definition of “safe” is not the absence of injury. So how can Zero be our definition of safe?

Now if a group of humans doing work for a period of time without any injuries is a result that we want then one could argue that it was “safe”. However we have tons of examples where people have worked long periods of time without incident then a catastrophic event happens. Often, through investigation, we find out that there were terrible risks being taken for some time before the incident occurred.

 Now What?

So continue to strive for ZERO, but motivate through measuring and rewarding the activities we do to create safety. If you get to a period of time when injuries are not happening, ask yourself if you know (with confidence) WHY you got that result. Is it because you’ve actually managed the work so any risks you are taking have been controlled to the point where no unnecessary exposure to energy is happening? Then I believe you can say with some confidence “We’re SAFE!”

Feel free to debate among yourselves. I know that Zero injuries for a period of time doesn’t necessarily mean your company is a safe place to work. Now if you can tell me with some certainty how you got there…I’ll believe you!

Here’s a very simple example of the comparison when using outcome injury measures:


Company   A

Company   B

Construction Site Construction Site
2 Story Building 2 Story Building
Worker Falls on Concrete Worker Falls on Fresh Snowfall
Fatal Injuries No Injuries
WCB Premiums – Up WCB Premiums – No Change
Bad Press No Press
OH&S Conviction No OH&S Conviction

Which Company Is Safer?

Motivate Safety Activity – The Results Will Come

So let’s re-examine what we are motivating people to do because what gets measured gets done. Let’s measure our “creating safety” and not just our success in “avoiding injuries”. If rewards and bonuses for your staff are based on Zero injuries, we’ll motivate people to hide injuries or we could be rewarding luck. Even worse we could have a large group of people working very hard on making their place of work “safe” and because of a somewhat minor situation lose their celebration of all their accomplishments. If we’re doing the right things and rewarding the act of producing safely…not many of us, if any of us, will get hurt!

Good luck and remember “Be kind to each other, we’re all in this together!”



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