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'Zero Harm'​ and Other Platitudes

Note: This article is an edited extract from "Next Generation Safety Leadership: From Compliance to Care".


Research shows that if goals are unrealistic, but you can achieve them by cheating, then people will cheat. They will commit fraud to obtain the incentive.

– George Loewenstein

Imagine there was a company that decided to go the extra mile in driving performance by implementing a goal of ‘zero errors.’ The ambitious target was made a ‘core value’ of the organization, and ‘zero error’ posters were proudly displayed around the offces (even in the bathrooms!).

Inevitably though, shortly after the grand launch, somebody made a mistake. Morale took a nosedive as investigations were conducted into how this could have happened. ‘Zero error reset’ workshops were rolled out, along with revised policies and procedures designed to prevent a repeat of the devastating occurrence.

Witnessing all the fuss, audits, and inquiries (and the associated mountain of paperwork), fear among staff members began to increase (“What if it was me that made the error?”). Due to basic human fallibility, others also made errors. Nothing huge or dramatic – just minor mistakes. As nobody else had witnessed these errors, the fearful employees made an understandable decision not to report them.

In the meantime, a blissfully ignorant management team was feeling proud of its ‘30 days error-free’ status, and barbecues were held to celebrate the achievement, along with the apparently error-free staff members receiving celebratory caps, key rings, and other such trinkets.

Sadly, however, due to a lack of subsequent learning from these numerous small (yet unreported) mistakes, a very serious error occurred.

Sound familiar?

Of course, the above is a fable – pure fction (at least I hope it is!). The whole notion of ‘zero mistakes’ is absurd, given the fundamental imperfection of human beings. Yet many organizations are seemingly in denial about the fact that adopting a goal of ‘zero harm’ often plays out in exactly the ways I described above.

I think in their fner moments most leaders would agree that, at some stage, an injury has been reclassifed to avoid falling into the ‘lost time injury’ (LTI) category (i.e., someone has been injured but put on ‘light duties’ to avoid it counting as an LTI). It happens and it happens a lot! Think what that does to trust levels among employees (particularly when the reclassifcation is motivated purely by metrics).


So does a ‘zero harm’ goal work? Well, probably not!

As Dekker (2017) noted, no studies reported in Zwetsloot et al. (2017) or elsewhere have been able to single out the presence or absence of a ‘zero harm’ vision (as a separate variable on a comparative basis) so as to determine its effect on safety outcomes. Hence there is no research demonstrating that ‘zero harm’ (as a clearly defned variable) reduces incident rates.

Moreover, zealous devotees of ‘zero harm’ would do well to temper their blind enthusiasm based on a recent study conducted in the UK construction sector which concluded that:

"working on a project subject to a zero safety policy or programme actually appears to slightly increase the likelihood of having a serious life-changing accident or fatality; a possible ‘zero paradox’ ... they suggest that the apparent trend towards abandoning zero amongst some large organizations is well-founded. As such, if 'zero' policies stymie learning whilst failing to reduce accidents, the need for a countervailing discourse is clear" (Sherratt & Dainty, 2017).

And indeed, there is a countervailing discourse. In some cases the ‘anti-zero’ campaigners are just as fanatical as some of the more fervent ‘zero harm’ supporters. If you think I am barbecuing this particular sacred cow, I suggest you pick up a copy of Dr. Robert Long’s For the Love of Zero – he goes the full nuclear option! My own view is that such extreme positions are seldom helpful.

Most of the companies we work with have some form of ‘zero’ vision. This doesn’t mean they are somehow stupid, unethical, immoral, or even (as some have opined) evil, and to suggest otherwise is ignorant and churlish.

I am a strong advocate of always looking for a positive intent – it’s a powerful and underutilized leadership tool of infuence. Rather than condemning a leader (or company) for engaging in seemingly errant or self-defeating choices (such as introducing a ‘zero harm’ goal), frst look for the positive intent:

  • What was the expected payoff?
  • What could the unintended negative consequences of that approach be?
  • Could the payoff be achieved by other, more constructive means?

The ‘zero’ vision seems admirable and, I believe, is (generally) put in place by sincere people, with the aims being to focus attention on avoiding harm and making it clear that no harm is acceptable to them. However, just because a goal has a positive intent it doesn’t mean it’s helpful.

Much has been written about the importance of goals being SMART, and while the acronym has numerous variations, the following captures its essence.

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time based

Even a modicum of analytical thinking will demonstrate that ‘zero’ goals struggle to ft the SMART criteria (or if they do they have to be shoehorned in!).

Is ‘zero’ specifc? As a binary goal it would appear to be very specific indeed ... but hang on a minute! What does harm include? First aid injuries? A stubbed toe? Does harm include psychological harm (e.g., stress leave, burnout, anxiety, depression, bullying, and suicides in mining camps)? If not, why not? Even in this brief analysis, what is meant by ‘harm’ becomes quite ambiguous – and if the goal is not explicit it becomes difficult if not impossible to measure.

Is it achievable? Again, that depends on how you have defned harm, and if what constitutes ‘zero harm’ is ill-defned, how will we know if we have achieved it? More to the point, does your workforce believe the goal of ‘zero harm’ is achievable? In my 20 years of experience I have rarely encountered a site where the majority of the workforce (or even the leaders) view ‘zero harm’ as an achievable goal. Does this matter? Absolutely!

When confronted with contentions such as those above, some of the more dyed-in-the-wool ‘zero’ cheerleaders will backtrack and say, “Oh well, it’s an aspirational goal.” To me that is like the perennial politician talking about achieving a budget surplus ... an aspirational goal. And as the voting public hears these words they roll their eyes and say, “yeah right!”

Maybe aspire to a better goal instead? A SMART goal? A goal that won’t result in the workforce rolling their eyes?

Many organizations that fall into the category of proactive or integrated cultures – for example, high reliability organizations (HROs) – frequently achieve sustained low incident rates without so much as a mention of the word ‘zero,’ so clearly it is possible to achieve excellence without employing binary goals and running the risk of building scepticism and mistrust among the workforce.

In a recent (and excellent) podcast about ‘zero harm’ by Griffth University’s safety science gurus Drew Rae and David Provan (2020), the researchers summarized the fndings from all relevant and available studies. Their balanced conclusion was that if a company doesn’t already have a goal of ‘zero,’ it probably shouldn’t adopt one. They went on to say that if a company does have a ‘zero’ goal, leaders need to make it clear that it is in place primarily to direct attention toward safe operations, rather than the numerical goal per se.

I largely concur with David and Drew; however, for the companies that retain the ‘zero’ goal, I would add, “stop banging on about it!” There’s a good chance that every time leaders mention it, somewhere in the room many of their workers are rolling their eyes!

As well as ‘zero harm,’ another oft-used phrase in organizations is “Your safety is our highest priority.” If that is true – if the phrase is to be anything other than a mere platitude, then senior staff need to start leading by means of authentic communication rather than glib, patronizing slogans that the workforce hears as hollow rhetoric. Leaders would do well to follow the examples of more mature organizations by doing what has been shown to be valid and evidence based, rather than what is easy or comfortable.


  • Binary safety goals (e.g., ‘zero harm’) are not supported by the research; in fact ‘zero’ programs have been found to be associated with increased occurrences of serious incidents and fatalities.
  • Most employees view ‘zero harm’ as unrealistic and unachievable; hence the goal is likely to be regarded as a mere platitude resulting in cynicism and mistrust.
  • When companies become overzealous about a ‘zero’ goal they can become intolerant of incidents, and their people may become less inclined to speak up due to fear of reprisals and a lack of psychological safety.


  • Is your company’s stated safety goal likely to be increasing or decreasing trust? Do you buy into it? Does the workforce?
  • What is the intent of the goal? Has this been made clear to the workforce?
  • What conversations could be had (and with whom) that could result in a move away from hollow rhetoric and safety platitudes?



Dekker, S. (2017). Zero vision: Enlightenment and new religion. Policy and Practice: Health and Safety, 15(2), 101–107. doi: 10.1080/14773996.2017.1314070

Rae, D., & Provan, D. (2020). Is adopting a zero harm policy good for safety? Podcast at adopting-a-zero-harm-policy-good-for-safety (accessed April 4, 2020).

Zwetsloot, G.I.J.M., Kines, P., Wybo, J.L., Ruotsala, R., Drupsteen, L., & Bezemer, R.A. (2017). Zero accident vision based strategies in organizations: Innovative perspectives. Safety Science, 91, 260– 268. doi: 10.1016/j.ssci.2016.08.016.


Clive Lloyd is an Australian psychologist who assists high-hazard organisations to improve their safety performance through the development of trust and psychological safety and by doing Safety Differently. He is the co-director and principal consultant of GYST Consulting Pty Ltd, and developer of the acclaimed Care Factor Program.



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