What to do when Vision Zero is a new global by-line?

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Wednesday, 20 September, 2017 - 16:00
Media release
National News

AUTHORS NOTE: This piece was written on reflection by me, as a LinkedIn article, after returning from the World Congress for Safety and Health at work. In style and most of its content, it is just that - a personal reflection. In some areas I have referred to "the SIA..." and when that occurs, I stand by that as a reflection of broader SIA views. 

David Clarke  

For many people from countries which consider themselves somewhere at the front end of new ideas in health and safety, the launch of an international Vision Zero campaign supported by many countries at last week’s World Congress for Safety and Health at Work is raising both eyebrows and blood pressure.

As most of this audience knows, although different in certain ways, the concepts of both Vision Zero and Zero Harm have been around for decades. With origins in road safety programs internationally, Vision Zero like Zero Harm started as an awareness campaign based on the notion that no level of harm should be acceptable. As campaigns to grow awareness and insight these concepts have great qualities and the idea that no level of harm is acceptable is something which virtually everyone can agree on. But from there, we go into whether all incidents/accidents are preventable, and the ideological rabbit hole begins to open up.

How does the general concept of Zero translate into workplace programs? In recent years Zero Harm programs in Australia have had supporters and strong critics, with concerns about things like the notion of Zero translating from a conceptual idea to an (unattainable) target, about the unintended consequences of folding the concept of Zero Harm into the culture of the organisation (depending on how you do it), and about the potential drift toward overemphasis on high prevalence low impact events. Despite this, Zero Harm Programs still remain one of many schools of thought being actively applied in workplace health and safety programs throughout Australia.

The Safety Institute of Australia is agnostic about the various schools of thought, including Zero Harm. This is not a cop-out. As sure as the sun rises, over time schools of thought change. We seek to provide the places and spaces for the profession to discuss and debate the schools of thought and their relative merits. We promote the discussion rather than the philosophy: As examples, our 2015 Safety Differently national conference, or state conferences and seminars where we present people like Dekker, Hopkins, Hollnagel, Conklin, Wilkinson, Provan and so many others, speaking from vastly different perspectives including Safety 1 and 2, Social Psychology or Zero Harm or anything else which explores the behavioural, process or systemic drivers for health and safety programs.

Our main interest is seeing good research and evaluation being done to assess the application of these approaches in the workplace. Ideology is one thing, evidence is another. As evidence based practices emerge, the evidence can be folded into the OHS Body of Knowledge. That is how the knowledge base for all professions grows.

Leading up to the World Congress, some of Institute’s leadership group had the challenge of being invited to make contributions to the discussion in a balanced way. Chairman Patrick Murphy had the hardest task with a keynote presentation titled for him - ‘why companies should support Vision Zero’. Not easy with his own professional knowledge of the challenges and pitfalls of the Australian experience. Patrick addressed this carefully, talking about the maturing of the Australian experience on a number of levels, describing some of the beneficial underpinning concepts of Zero Harm such as commitment, a philosophy of care, and integrating these philosophies into the way the company operates – and also describing his view of the shortfalls of the concept.

Is this the right international health and safety initiative? Who knows, but it’s the initiative whether you like it or not. What its critics must face is that different countries around the world are at very different stages on their health and safety journey, and you can’t always expect them to take the big leap you think you’ve already taken.

It’s not just about the developing world, so it would be a mistake to assume a backwardness in the thinking of those associated. Sweden for example is considered at the forefront of social and community thinking on a number of levels, and amongst the drivers of the Vision Zero initiative.

Understanding different cultures and their values is an important veil through which to consider this issue. This initiative is being taken up by a collection of different cultures with their own emerging ideas about what Vision Zero means. In these different cultures, would your own school of thought apply in the same way? Would the key premises of your underpinning philosophy apply? Not necessarily. 

Creating healthier and safer workplaces in any culture (national or business) where a particular norm currently rules (and that is everywhere) requires cultural change - a sophisticated and challenging task. The adoption of Vision Zero is the current way that many countries have decided to take that on.

So, when faced with the reality of the adoption of Vision Zero by so many countries, I am sanguine. It tells us what those countries are talking and thinking about, and gives us an opportunity to have a dialogue with them at a number of levels, which is a positive thing in an international movement which shares the powerful common cause of keeping people safe and healthy at work.