There are various schools of thought when it comes to the golden goose egg and your organization’s EHS performance.

Maybe you’ve been talking about zero lost-time or zero-recordable incidents.

Possibly, you’ve been discussing zero waste or zero spills.

Even more, if we could get enough zeros on the left side of the decimal point within our personal bank accounts – we’d be very wealthy.

But let’s be open and honest.

Zero recordable and lost-time incidents are possible, and are being achieved across the globe, in greater numbers than ever before. However, does the push for zero increase cover-ups and inhibit necessary communications when it comes to incident reporting or critical safety concerns? Can it heighten anxiety and lead to increasingly serious harm producing events?

When it comes to EHS performance, is zero simply a bad number to embrace in any form?

The zero-incident dilemma

The whole zero-incident argument is a delicate and difficult subject to tackle.

I have clients who have gone several years without a recordable incident and still others that have had more than 12 years without a recordable. Another client has more than 150 facilities, world-wide that have achieved more than a year, without a recordable incident.

Are these poor performing companies when it comes to productivity or safety?

Not hardly.

And if the pursuit of zero is so dangerous, should they scrap the very thought of maintaining that kind of success?

The zero-incident organizations that I’ve cited are some of the most respected companies in the world – Fortune 500 companies that are the envy of many. But they’re not perfect, they know it, and continually strive for improvement – that’s part of the reason why they’re so successful.

These organizations also realize that the absence of injuries never reveals an absence of risk.

And they also understand that hazards and their related risks are always present but must be continually assessed and controlled for in ways that will make those same risks increasingly acceptable. It’s no secret that these firms have exceptional leadership and resources, excellent BBS processes; great front line leadership, open communications, accountability and coaching, and each have great safety management systems.

You name it – they’ve got it! In effect, they have “all the right stuff.” So is the entire zero-incident pursuit a poor investment and dangerous path for these companies?

More than semantics

Leading airlines don’t include zero crashes as part of a formal goal but more as a part of their vision for excellence. Zero may be included in their conversations but not in a way that could harm communications and continual improvement.

When zero becomes a part of their vision for excellence, it also becomes an ingrained component of their daily rituals and routines that helps them to fly without egregious consequences. But here’s the key - they rely on various process measures and work practices that will help them achieve zero crashes.

Their critical measures may relate to pilot training and work protocol, maintenance issues, and flight safety standards that can be reasonably broad in application.

And these high-risk organizations maintain a guarded approach to each mission. If their vision is

anything less than zero – expectations will drop, critical measures might be revised, and so too will their realization of zero crashes. Is every flight without error? Are there near misses and concerns prior to push back or with regard to in flight processes? Airlines and their aerospace counterparts (aircraft manufacturers and support contractors) are not perfect and you can bet there are issues and concerns before, during, and after many flights. But that’s where their collective resources and improvements are focused – on the risks, critical practices and measures that help them to realize zero crashes.

Outside of aerospace, companies that are achieving zero in one form or another know that their process measures have to be meaningful, thoughtfully applied, and used with rigor

For example, mature zero incident companies measure the quantity and quality of BBS coaching contacts, improvements in near miss reporting, abatement of hazards, and engagement of the workforce and management. These are just a few proactive measures that are critical to sustainable EHS performance excellence. These same companies know that if they control their risks, train the right people, measure what’s expected, and hold people accountable to those measures, downstream numbers will fall into place. And although zero may not be a formal goal – it’s part of their everyday work expectations and a large portion of their vision for EHS excellence.

What’s the struggle and where’s the comfort zone?

Part of the struggle and problem exists when leaders are held accountable for the wrong measures. If leaders obtain bonuses and promotions because zero is a formidable part of their performance review, problems will evolve, sooner or later. Leadership performance measures, and the organization’s scorecard, need to be a balanced one. That requires the use of safety performance measures that relate to actions and activities. Much like those I have already addressed

And what’s the old adage? What’s gets measured gets done!

Mature zero-incident companies battle their way through the safety comfort zone. They understand wallowing in this place often becomes dangerous when leaders speak about and embrace the wrong measures, too often and for far too long! They naively believe that this singular safety measure is the Holy Grail of EHS success. Subsequently, individuals throughout the organization become comfortable and complacent. Some managers and supervisors remove themselves from open and honest safety-related communications. At times, they’re no longer approachable. You see, some leaders begin to feel that there’s nothing left to discuss – they’ve arrived! Their employees are afraid to speak up about a serious concern.

Open and honest discussions become uncomfortable and threatening. Employees are viewed as complainers, a part of the problem – and near misses are swept under the carpet.

Finally, the small stuff becomes the big stuff.

Precursors and warning signs to serious accidents are perceived as off limits for dialogue, and subsequently, a catastrophe follows. Isn’t this at least part of the evolution that some of us have experienced in our careers?

Many organizations emphasize, embrace, and enjoy the wrong measures of success - believing that they’ve reached the Promised Land!

Mature zero-incident organizations rigorously embrace multiple performance measures that serve as their foundation for sustainable achievement. And they don’t allow anyone to rest or remain in the Promised Land, especially not their leaders.

Zero is possible… but are you asking the right questions?

What are some of the questions that you and your leaders need to ask of each other?

Do your leaders believe that a vision for zero is worth the investment or pursuit?

Are the benefits such as improved morale, quality, and productivity worth the cost?

Are your current leaders open, honest, and approachable when it comes to safety-related concerns?

Are you using the right process measures that will help to align your leaders’ actions with a vision for zero?

Finally, how will you refine your EHS practices and measures once zero has been achieved and sustained?

The zero-incident argument is not an easy one to discuss or apply. If it were, everyone would be getting to zero and staying there for a long, long time!