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Zero Harm

Last updated: September 26, 2018

What Does Zero Harm Mean?

Zero harm refers to an approach to occupational safety that has been adopted by many workplaces.

The goal of a zero-harm approach is to operate a workplace without exposing an individual to injury through the implementation of safe work systems. Zero-harm approaches are linked to exceeding safety regulations.

Safeopedia Explains Zero Harm

The effectiveness of the zero-harm safety policy is controversial and is debated by both practicing occupational safety experts and academic researchers. Many safety experts embrace the concept while others believe that the concept is harmful. Because the concept of zero harm is not standardized and does not have a codified set of safety policies, procedures, or review criteria, workplaces that utilize the zero-harm concept may do so in a variety of ways.

Due to the focus on eliminating or reducing safety risks as a method to achieve gains in workplace productivity, some workplace management methodologies (such as “Lean”) have been framed as being compatible with the zero-harm concept.

The most extreme version of zero harm is a policy where the goal is to avoid all minor and major injuries as well as all deaths. Other implementations of the concept include those where only major injuries and deaths are counted within the scope of the zero-harm concept, as well as those where the implementation is tied to a goal of minimizing risk to the greatest extent possible rather than directly prioritizing the actual zero-harm outcome. The above type of implementation tends to emphasize creating a high-reliability safety culture that prioritizes the continuous improvement of workplace safety.

Some occupational health and safety practitioners and academics with a negative opinion of zero harm believe that the concept is innately tied to executive targets that provide a negative incentive for workers to report potential hazards. This argument holds that zero-harm policies suppress safety behavior by discouraging workers' honesty about safety problems, which results in an underreporting of problems. Proponents of this perspective point to studies that have shown a correlation between the implementation of zero-harm policies and an increase in serious accidents and fatalities. Arguments in favor of zero harm believe that these problems only apply to certain inappropriate implementations of zero harm, and they argue that process-oriented approaches to zero harm have been successful.

Zero harm is frequently lauded by industry representatives that report on the state of safety in their industry and jurisdiction. For instance, the fact that the Canadian Institute of Mining has given safety awards to companies that have achieved zero fatalities or lost-time injuries is viewed as recognition of successful zero-harm policies.


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