The Movement Away from a Zero-Injury Culture

For several years now, the workplace safety industry has seen a slow but growing movement away from a zero-injury goal toward the development and promotion of a culture of safety based upon targeted training, informational outreach, and the minimization of unsafe behaviors.

Why all the fuss about semantics? Critics of the zero-injury goal point out that language used to market safety goals to workers has a direct effect on the formation of their safety values, beliefs, and actions. Safety experts warn that the focus on "zero" drives anxiety and fear among workers while fostering an intolerant, non-learning environment.

Those in favor of zero-injury culture argue that any other injury goal would be ethically unjustifiable, signaling to the workforce that corporate profits outweigh concerns over safety.

The Problem of Underreporting
One of the biggest criticisms of the zero-injury goal is that it encourages and incentivizes — intentionally or unintentionally — the underreporting of injury data. While it's impossible to quantify the extent of underreporting, there has been an increasing number of media reports over the past several years, as well as notable concern from the OSHA.

Holding organizations and workers to a zero-injury standard leads to the underreporting of near misses and seemingly minor incidents, which are prime opportunities for developing additional training — the foundation of prevention.

Focusing on the Means Over the End
Everyone wants zero injuries. But safety campaigns built around "zero" have led to unintended consequences and suppressed the opportunity for real strategic safety discourse. The movement away from zero is not indicative of an unfeeling safety industry, but more a practical shift in focus from the end goal to the behavioral means of achieving that goal.

"Zero injuries is the byproduct of the value of safety excellence; it should never be the primary goal," Shawn M. Galloway wrote in the February 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety. "Don't allow the focus to become slogans without strategy."

This sentiment is echoed by the OSHA, which has voiced concern about safety incentive programs that reward workers for "zero" accidents over a given period of time. If an employee's injury leads to his or her entire team missing out on a bonus, prize, or other incentive, it's no wonder that it may never come to light. The OSHA instead recommends celebrating them displaying safe behaviors:

"These incentive programs can discourage employees from reporting injuries because they want to receive the reward," says OSHA Assistant Secretary of Labor Dr. David Michaels. "Good incentive programs feature positive reinforcement when workers demonstrate safe work practices and when workers take active measures such as reporting close calls, abating hazards, and using their stop-work authority to prevent a workplace tragedy."

What sounds like a minor change in perspective could actually have major implications. It transitions the workplace from a culture of fear to a culture of reinforcement and realigns incentives to reward behavioral excellence of individuals.

Moving the Needle
Tracking these type of macro-level cultural changes is not easy, but one dramatic shift can be seen in the sales trends of the workplace safety promotional industry. "Zero Injuries" was once the most popular safety slogan for banners, posters, and other promotional products, but there's been a decline in recent years.

"We've seen a noticeable sales trend away from zero-injury products toward more specific behavioral themes," said Roy Ryniker, president of Positive Promotions, a company that creates promotional and educational materials. "Over the past three years, our zero injury banners are being outsold three to one by more targeted informational safety banners."

Beyond these banners, the company no longer carries zero-injury themed products (such as lunch bags, shirts, etc.) due to their lack of popularity. Instead, companies such as Positive Promotions are seeing a thematic shift toward products that focus on the safety behavior of individual workers and teams. A comment from a customer survey conducted by the company seems to echo this shift: "I am a strong proponent of moving away from the zero injury goal. I believe and have witnessed that it inadvertently drives underreporting of injuries."

Does declining sales of "zero injury" banners signal an industry-wide shift? Not necessarily. But a movement away from zero does appear to be occurring. Though the OSHA has not explicitly rejected the zero-injury emphasis in workplace safety, its campaign against improper incentive programs may be driving organizations away from zero messaging toward posters, banners, and safety campaigns that push for positive reinforcement and a team-focused climate of learning.

Scott Merilatt is a freelance writer and editor from Seattle, Wash. He specializes in a range of occupational health and safety topics.

Posted by Scott Merilatt on Jun 15, 2015