Back to the future — Vision Zero


By Dave Cant*
Wednesday, 15 November, 2017


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The launch of an international Vision Zero campaign at the World Congress for Safety and Health last month certainly surprised many people.

My thoughts immediately move to Marty McFly playing ‘Johnny Be Goode’. Marvin Berry rings Chuck and says: “You know that new sound you’re looking for, well listen to this!” It seems that at the congress, someone sold something old to a new audience.

The notion of Vision Zero or Zero Harm, that no level of harm should be acceptable, has been around for some time and its intent is not questionable. However, how achievable or believable is it?

Stepping back in time, the way we managed to get the attention of our business leaders was to build the incident case. We painted a picture that explained how incidents could cost money and lessen efficiency. As a result, we were allocated resources and good programs evolved, driving incident numbers down. But yearly targets and bonuses were tied to annual lag indicator improvements. To meet our targets, more scrutiny and categorising of incidents was demanded. And as things got tight, invariably something broke.

In some cases, under-reporting of incidents increased. In worse cases, supervisors stopped sending people to medical providers and started making unqualified on-site medical decisions. The drive to Zero was compromised as increased pressure was exerted downwards.

The concept has continued and extended into many other organisations over time. The concept, while noble in intent, invariably proves unrealistic for workers and workforces.

Why unrealistic?

Those who have practice at the coalface will know that any key focus or messaging needs to carry meaning with workers. If the workers don’t buy into it, then goals will never be realised.

These days, my vision and messaging is always one of ‘returning value to shareholders, by minimising incidents and injuries’. How this comes to life is through the completion and tracking of key behaviours around quality lead indicators:

  • Plan your work and work your plan.
  • Get out into the workplace and see what is really happening and expect everyone else to do likewise.
  • Coach your people to interact confidently with those in the field.
  • Reinforce what we see done well.
  • Ask questions to clarify issues and listen intently to the responses.
  • When issues are raised, follow through and act on them expediently.

Engage consistently with those involved and other key stakeholders:

  • Share your learnings and experiences.
  • Prescribe one way of doing things; standardise meeting agendas and communications; and schedule regular risk and incidents reviews.
  • Most importantly, work with your people to be successful.

Understand the risks and ensure those doing the job consider these:

  • Escalate issues to those accountable and ensure they consider and address these fairly.
  • Link your engagement programs with your high-consequence activities daily.
  • Stop things when uncomfortable.

Measure your performance in these areas and, as quality emerges, the desired outcomes look after themselves.

Back to the Global Congress. Let’s hope that in their rush towards the light from the Vision Zero train at the end of the tunnel, they realised that many in the room may never see a pinprick of this aspirational light. If any of the old traps re-emerge, then focus and belief in the notion will disappear rapidly. Experience tells us that getting to Zero is unfeasible and definitely unsustainable. When workers realise this, it quickly becomes unbelievable.

Only well-implemented front-end processes will see quality uptake by our people and sustainable outcomes achieved.

*David Cant currently runs his own WHS consultancy, DC Safety Consultancy Services. With over 25 years’ experience, he has managed WHS functions for leading Australian companies such as CSR Ltd and Patrick Corporation, as well as the US-owned Chubb business in Australasia. His business is focused on getting safety right in organisations, with a vision of returning value to shareholders by minimising incidents and injuries.

With a strong background in leadership, risk management and people-based safety, Cant continues to develop and mentor the next generation of WHS leaders.

Top image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Lenan

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