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The idea of a zero accident culture, and actually achieving this goal, seems to be a bit like sub-atomic particle physics – the closer you get, the more elusive it becomes. And any attempt to put in place defined rules ends up as a mathematical theory that never quite fully explains the observations.
Zero accidents can be achieved in certain circumstances of a small timescale and stringent control but human nature and Murphy’s Law go hand in hand. I am reminded of a statement by Richard Feynman, the great American theoretical physicist. A philosopher once said: “It is necessary for the very existence of science that the same conditions always produce the same results.” Well, they don’t. First, it is important to realise that “zero accidents” or any improvement in accident frequency or severity is a lagging indicator of safety. It is a result and not the process that produces it. It can be achieved through excellent performance but it also can be achieved by luck or a normal variation in accident occurrence. It may even be accomplished by suppressing reporting through intimidation or artificial stimuli such as bonus and incentive programmes.
Also, since most organisations qualify the term to include a certain classification of accident such as “zero recordables” or “zero lost-time accidents”, it can be manipulated in reporting practices and post-accident management. The zero accident goal – while laudable – needs strategy, process and culture.
First published in Insight November 2015