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"Zero Tolerance" versus "Harm Minimisation": Time for HSE to shift its Mindset?

Prior to being dragged kicking and screaming into the field of health and safety some 20 years ago, my specialist area was the treatment of addictions. Treatment efficacy of the addictions was also my area of post-graduate research and I published several articles and book chapters in the area (e.g., Lloyd and O'Callaghan, 1999). Back then, successive Governments had pushed a "Zero Tolerance" approach to drug use, going as far as declaring a "war on drugs".

While taking such a hard line on illicit substance use was (potentially) a vote-winner among an electorate largely ignorant of the vagaries of addiction, there was a strong lack of evidence that such policies were in fact effective. Rather, they tended to drive "offenders" underground and fill up prison cells with little or no improvement in addiction rates or the resulting harm.

My research (and that of many others - then and subsequently) demonstrated that a "harm minimisation" approach was more effective for treatment outcomes. A harm minimisation approach understands relapse is a normal part of recovery, and seeks to mitigate risks and potential harm collaboratively with patients.

When I moved into the area of health and safety, I was once again confronted by "Zero Tolerance" language (Zero Harm, Zero Incidents etc). Again, there is little (if any) research demonstrating that this approach is effective. However, there are studies demonstrating (perhaps counter-intuitively) that a goal of "Zero Incidents" is associated with higher levels of serious injuries and fatalities (e.g.,Sherratt & Dainty, 2017).

Research suggests that when a Zero Tolerance approach is present, it can result in organisations becoming intolerant of incidents, with the unfortunate side-effect of impeding honest reporting and subsequent learning.

By adopting a "harm minimisation" approach, we are more able to work collaboratively with teams without inferred retribution after (for example) mistakes or deviations from normal work (which are common and to be expected).

Zero tolerance has not been an effective approach to reducing harm from substance abuse. Neither, in my view, is it an effective strategy to reduce physical and psycho-social injuries in the workplace.

While Governments, company boards and executives may still see a certain political appeal in continuing a "war on injuries" based on a zero tolerance approach, I believe we would do better to be steered by the evidence and start developing harm minimisation strategies, in collaboration with the very people likely to benefit most from it - the frontline workforce.


Sherratt, F., & Dainty, A. (2017). UK construction safety: a zero paradox? Policy and Practice in Health and Safety, 15(2), 108–116. doi: 10.1080/14773996.2017.1305040.

Lloyd C., & O'Callaghan, F. (1999). HierarchicalTherapeutic Communities: The Jewel in the Crown or the poor relation among treatment approaches to chronic addiction.


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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