Is aiming for zero harm the safest way to work?

Is aiming for zero harm the safest way to work?

Eliminating workplace accidents is an ambition shared across British industry. Keeping people safe at work is of paramount importance. But is a zero-accident environment a realistic aim? The evidence suggests not. 

In a recent paper, Fred Sherratt and Andrew Dainty, of Anglia Ruskin University and Loughborough Universities respectively, explored the impact of a zero harm approach in the British construction industry and the results were surprising. 

The research team looked at the relationship between aiming for zero accidents and the actual numbers of potentially life-changing incidents that occurred on those organisations’ construction sites over a four-year period. 

The zero paradox

The researchers found workers are marginally more likely to have an accident working on a large construction site operated by a company that has adopted zero within their health and safety strategy, than those working on a site without it.

Health and safety risks on a construction site

It is often suggested that construction is not like any other industry in terms of health and safety management. Partly this is because of the inherent hazards of construction work. It is also, in part, because the work environment on a construction site is always changing. 

Workers are inevitably close to excavations, leading edges and heights, as foundations, walls and roofs are constructed. They use potentially dangerous plant, machinery and equipment, while toxic chemicals are also frequently used. 

The careful and continuous management of health and safety risks on a construction site is an essential task.

As well as the inherent site risks, the nature of the way the industry is operated complicates things further. Issues include: 

  • Competitive tendering driving down costs can lead to cutting corners
  • Sub-contracting leads to long supply chains and negative consequences for safety
  • Profits are squeezed, leaving less budget for health and safety training
  • A transient and temporary workforce may not understand health and safety culture
  • Bonus and payment schemes incentivise speed over safety

Despite the risks, the UK construction industry remains one of the safest in the world.

The trouble with aiming for zero

When zero accidents become the goal, onerous monitoring and measuring can take the place of actual safety. While company management often position zero as a tangible goal, construction workers themselves, who live with the reality of trying to achieve it, find the culture incompatible with the challenges they face every day. In the worst cases, aiming for zero can even suppress the open dialogue and learning culture necessary for ongoing safety improvements. 

Focusing on the numbers and not the vision that should inspire real change might be where construction safety management is going wrong. 

Moving forward safely – what does the future hold?

Leading construction experts have recently suggested that the application of zero targets to safety is actually hindering safety management innovation and has rendered it a bureaucratic activity. 

Focusing so rigidly on measurement fails to challenge and change current practice; rather it aims to operate within the existing environment. Instead, engaging with the workforce to address problems and identify opportunities for continuously improving practices and the people behind them could be a more effective way to drive up safety standards. 

To talk about how ProGARM’s Arc Flash PPE can help your workforce stay safe, give one of our friendly experts a call on +44 (0) 1482 679600.

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