Boal V BHP – Zero Tolerance: Are your “systems” commensurate to your attitudes?

I am not a fan of the language of “zero“, either as an aspiration or as a stated goal. It has never sat well with me, and seems so disconnected from day to day reality in both society and a workplace that people cannot help but become disconnected from, or dismissive of, the message behind the term. My view has always been that the language of zero actually undermines the objectives it is trying to achieve.

If you are interested in this topic (and if you are involved in safety you should be) there are far more passionate, learned and articulate critics of the language of zero than me – See for example, anything by Dr. Robert Long.

However, as a lawyer who specialises in workplace safety and health, I was very interested in a recent decision by the Fair Work Commission that demonstrates how an employers attitude of zero can be used against them.

In Mr Shannon Boal v BHP Coal Pty Ltd (U2014/5272), Mr Boal was dismissed for breaching mobile phone usage requirements when his mobile phone was found in the cabin of the truck he had been operating.

While the Fair Work Commission found that there was a valid reason to terminate Mr Boal’s employment, it found that the termination was unfair for a number of procedural reasons. In part, the Fair Work Commission relied on the level of training and information that Mr Boal had been provided about the relevant procedure.

The training documentation provided did not clearly demonstrate that employees were trained in this new procedure and signed accordingly, or that it was given a significant roll-out to employees commensurate with their ‘zero tolerance’ attitude to incidents of breaches, given how this case has been pursued (my emphasis added).

Whatever your view about zero as appropriate language for managing workplace health and safety issues, there is no doubt that it is strong, absolutist language. If you are going to frame your approach to safety in the rhetoric of zero, you need to be sure that your actions at work match the rhetoric. If you don’t, your workers will see your safety messages as nothing but “window dressing“, designed to look good but basically meaningless, and lawyers will use the term to undermine the efficacy of your systems.

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