"Zero harm" is a safety concept based on a hope and the false belief that all incidents are preventable, according to a leading workplace lawyer.
Although zero harm is a common catch-cry of safety practitioners, it is just a myth - without further definition, said Andrew Douglas, a principal in workplace law at Macpherson + Kelley Lawyers.
"Workers properly believe in the real world. They see safety projects paraded like industrial mannequins upon the business cat walk, only to be replaced the following year by a new fashion," he said.
"When you develop a project built toward zero harm which is underpinned by the assumption that all injuries are preventable, you have created a self-imposed reasonably practicable test that cannot be met."
Speaking ahead of the upcoming Safety in Action Conference in Melbourne, Douglas said such a project has the following effects: "you will not succeed because people make mistakes; you have created evidence that any injury can reasonably and practicably be prevented (therefore, any injury in your workplace can be prosecuted); and you will disillusion your workforce and then the risk of incidents increases."
If a zero harm policy must be used, Douglas recommended defining what it means, and he said safety language, acronyms and changing descriptions of processes or forms often make safety inaccessible.
"Line supervisors, operations managers, CEOs and Boards constantly complain that they need safety documents, but do not know what those documents mean," he said.
"The language is utterly impenetrable. As a result, although a business has a state of the art OHSMS, nobody understands it or knows how to use it. A little like my father with an iPhone - although it's the latest version, he can't even make a call on it."
As such, Douglas said to "define zero harm as a vision or a value, but then build a safety system that is linked to behavioural improvements and structured around meaningful metrics".
At the floor level, Douglas said this may involve training, inspections, reviews and assessments, while at the board level, this may involve developing appropriate lead and lay indicators with gap reporting.
"Most importantly, demystify the safety language. Make it clear, understandable and consistent," he said.
Douglas also recommended elevating zero harm to a vision or value, making targets within the business achievable and this process sustainable.
"Most importantly, grow it from the floor up. Make this the workers' model, not management spin. Then report back and celebrate. If the workers own it, live it and deliver it - it will last," he said.
"Only then, can zero harm be reality-based and deliver a true dividend to the business and safety for its workforce."
Douglas will be speaking at the Safety in Action Conference, which will be held from 5-7 April 2011 at the Melbourne Exhibition Centre. For more information visit www.thesafetyshow.com.au/safety-in-action-melbourne .