Zero harm and reasonably practicable: Inherently contradictory?

There is a lot of discussion in safety circles around the concept of zero harm and its place in safety management (see the following example).

On one side of the debate proponents of zero harm say that it is an “aspiration” rather than a hard target, and that aiming to prevent all injuries is the right thing to do.

On the other side, the argument suggests that the use of zero harm actively disengages the workforce from safety: “They” do not believe in zero harm and it is just another corporate slogan used as a substitute for addressing the workforce’s genuine safety concerns.

My personal view is that slogans like zero harm probably do undermine safety, at least insofar as the organisations’ conduct is inconsistent with their statements.

I might leave that part of the debate to people far better placed to argue it than me, but recently I was involved in a discussion with a client about zero harm in a slightly different, but related context.

Under the safety management system the client strove to achieve Zero Harm by managing all risks as far as “Reasonable Practicable”. This seems to be the stated aim of most organisations to a greater or lesser degree.

What the client did not understand was that reasonably practicable is a legal concept that inherently recognises that accidents do happen.

The law is clear that it is not the responsibility of the employer to ensure that accidents never happen, rather an employer must do everything practicable to ensure that its employees are not exposed to hazards.

So, if we genuinely believe in zero harm, and want to do more than the minimum “legal” requirements, then surely we should adopt a philosophy or measure of safety performance that is consistent with what we want to achieve? Surely there is no place for the concept of reasonably practicable in an organisation that believes in zero harm?

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