Maybe you’ve worked at a company that adopted a safety phrase like this: Our goal is zero injuries! Now some in the world of safety say slogans like that are a bad thing, while others say anything less is unconscionable. Who’s right?
Here’s a seminar title that will get your attention: Zero Accidents was the Goal of the Titanic!
So when I was choosing my sessions for this year’s American Society of Safety Engineers’ Safety 2012 conference in Denver, I put that on my schedule.
The session leader, Corrie Pitzer with SAFEmap International, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, posed the question: Why do great companies have safety disasters? (At another ASSE conference session, discussion leaders said one reason is that the precursors to minor and major incidents are different, and that eliminating minor ones doesn’t necessarily eliminate major ones.)
Pitzer said there are 7 traps of what he calls “Near Zero Organizations ” (NZO). One of the traps is proclaiming that your safety vision is zero … zero injuries.
Zero is a false god, according to Pitzer.
Emotionally, no one wants one of their workers to get hurt or killed on the job. There’s really no other way to think about it.
But Pitzer said, think about what it would mean to have zero injuries. That would also mean you’d have zero incidents. Will that happen? To have zero incidents would also mean you’d have zero near misses. But near misses are important for learning, right? To have zero near misses, you’d also have to have zero mistakes. Are any of us perfect? To have zero mistakes, you’d probably have to have zero risks. Yet, don’t we also speak of reasonable risk in business?
On the other hand …
While speaking at the ASSE conference, OSHA administrator David Michaels mentioned a new book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Michaels said, “You have to read the part about Alcoa and safety.”
So I bought the book.
First off, Habit is an interesting psychological read, both for personal and business goals. It lays out the science of how establishing habits is key to reaching goals.
The chapter Michaels refers to has to do with how, in 1987, new Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neill decided to make safety the core of change for the aluminum company.
At a meeting with prominent Wall Street investors and stock analysts, O’Neill made this statement right at the beginning of his speech: “I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America. I intend to go for zero injuries.”
The investors thought O’Neill was nuts. This is what the new CEO leads with? This is his top priority? People left the meeting and advised their clients to sell their Alcoa stock — the new CEO was crazy.
But the rest is history.
Within a year of O’Neill’s speech, Alcoa’s profits hit a record high. And that happened because Alcoa did become one of the safest companies in the world.
Before O’Neill’s initiative, Alcoa plants had an average of one injury per week. Afterward, some would go years without having an injury.
O’Neill attacked one habit of workers and then watched the changes ripple through his organization. Quality got better. Production got better. Profits certainly got better.
“The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns,” author Duhigg writes in his book.
So who is right? Is “zero injuries” an unreasonable goal? Does it cause workers to hide injuries so that they aren’t the one to cause their group, assembly line, plant, etc. to miss its safety goal? Or is “zero injuries” really the only way to go when it comes to workplace safety? Do you use some form of the slogan?
As always, let us know what you think in the comments below.