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 often undermines the objectives it is trying to achieve (see this case for example).
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, recently I have been asked to do quite a bit of work around psychological harm in the context of occupational safety and health. In particular, how the legal risk management of psychological harm in the context of safety and health might differ from the Human Resources (HR)/employee relations context.
WHS legislation around Australia expressly includes “psychological” health within its remit and the Western Australian Department of Mines and Petroleum has acknowledged that they regard “health” as including “psychological” health, even though it is not expressly described in the State’s mining legislation.
What has emerged, at least to my mind, is the extent to which our policy, procedure and policing approach to safety and health, far from alleviating psychological harm in the workplace, might be contributing to it.
Safety management might be part of the problem.
In an ongoing Western Australian inquiry into the possible impact of fly in/fly out work on “mental health” the Australian Medical Association identified that the way health and safety is managed can contribute to a “distinct sense of entrapment” (page 43):
The AMA also expressed its concerns about this issue, noting that “[o]nerous rules, safety procedures and focus on achievement of production levels have been shown to create a distinct sense of entrapment in FIFO workers.”
The inquiry drew, in some measure, on an earlier report, the Lifeline WA FIFO/DIDO Mental Health Research Report 2013 which also appeared to note the adverse impact of safety and health management on psychological well-being. For example “[a]dhering to on-site safety rules” was identified as a workplace stress (page 77). Interestingly, the Lifeline report noted a sense of “intimidation” brought on by the number of rules and regulations associated with work on a mine, and :
This sense of intimidation was further mirrored in the outcomes of mining safety regulations which in theory were designed to care for workers but in practice led to inflexible regulation over genuine safety concerns (page 81).
Examples from the Lifeline report include:
… a participant recalled a situation in which a worker handling heavy loads required an adhesive bandage but was unable to ask someone to get them for him because he had to fill out an accident report first (which he was unable to do mid-job); hence he had to carry on working without attending to his cuts. Alternatively, another example of the application of safety rules in an inflexible manner was illustrated when a group of workers were reprimanded for not wearing safety glasses on a 40 degree day even though they could not see from them due to excessive sweating. Hence, safety rules themselves were accepted as a necessary part of work but their implementation in an inflexible uniform manner created stress as workers felt their impact hindered their ability to conduct basic work tasks safely and/or without attracting rebuke. Hence, site rules and regulations could translate into arbitrary and punitive forms of punishment, which undermined participants’ ability to fulfil jobs to their satisfaction and left them feeling insecure with their positions (page 81).
It seems, then, that we need to think beyond our own perceptions of what might contribute to workplace stress and understand the impact that our efforts to manage health and safety might actually be having. Again, as the Lifeline research noted:
… although past research has shown that site conditions and cultures, such as isolation and excessive drinking are problematic, this research shows that the regimented nature of working and living on-site also takes a toll on mental health and wellbeing. From the responses of many participants, it was apparent that following site safety rules (either under pressure of internal monitoring or in the perceived absence of adequate safety precautions by co-workers and supervisors) was a significant stressor. Participants felt unable to apply self-perceived common-sense judgments and also reported feeling vulnerable to intensive scrutinising, intimidation and threats of job loss (page 82) [my emphasis added].
The common criticisms of the language of “zero” seem to me to go directly to the factors that have been identified in this research as contributing to psychological harm in the workplace. The pressure to comply with rules, fear about reporting incidents, the inability to exercise individual judgement on how to manage risk and the inflexible application of process are all side-effects of the language of “zero“.
Up until this point the debate around “zero harm” and its utility (or otherwise) as the headline for safety management has been relatively benign. Apart from the advocacy of people like Dr Robert Long “zero harm” seems to have been perceived as a relatively neutral strategy, insofar as people believe that it “does no harm“, and “what’s the alternative?”.
It seems, in fact, that much harm may be perpetuated in the name of “zero“, and at some point the behaviours that it drives will be found to be unlawful.
It is also going to be interesting to see how health and safety regulators, often the champions of “zero harm” oversee its potential impacts on psychological harm in the workplace. Indeed, it would be very useful to see what risk assessments, research or other measures were taken by regulators prior to introducing “zero harm” style campaigns or messages to understand the potential effects of their interventions, or any subsequent research to understand the potential harm they may have done.