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Zero Injuries is Not Your Goal

This article was published in the January 2012 issue of Occupational Health and Safety magazine.

It was 1981, and I was in Danville, Virginia. I followed Tom, the safety director through the dark old textile mill, walking on heart of pine floors that had probably seen over a hundred years of workers come and go. The smell of machine oil mixed with the warm smell of cotton. The textile machines hummed away, spinning out yard after yard of fabric.

I watched the workers busily monitoring the machines to keep them running at peak efficiency, and I noted that many of them had T-Shirts emblazoned with a slogan… “Zero Injuries-Our Goal”

On the walls in every break room, the same “Zero Injuries” slogan was repeated on posters, coffee mugs, you name it.

I was impressed with the passion in this culture to reach zero injuries, so I asked Tom about his plant’s safety record.

“Well, Bill, I’ll be honest—we’ve made huge gains in safety over the last 5 years, but now, it seems that reaching zero is impossible. The closer we get to zero, the harder it becomes to show improvement. We’ve started to plateau or “flat line” and my concern is that we’ll do a “hockey stick” and trend back up”, Tom admitted.

With over 1500 employees, Tom’s plant routinely celebrated million hour milestones, fed people steak dinners, and the like. But they still had a steady stream of injuries that wouldn’t go away.

Tom’s problem is like that of many other cultures. They have chased the goal of Zero Injuries year after year, only to find it to be more elusive than the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

At that moment, I looked Tom dead in the eye and told him that part of his problem was that he was chasing the wrong goal. I told Tom what I’ve told thousands of safety leaders around the world for over thirty years:

Zero Injuries is NOT your Goal

“Huh??? What did you say Bill?”

If you’re thinking this, it’s completely normal. Usually I get a degree of “shock and awe” when I say this to audiences. They’re not quite sure I’m in my right mind.

But I am completely serious. Zero injuries should NOT be your goal.

Until leaders understand that there is a level of safety beyond zero, they will be stuck on the dreaded “hockey stick plateau” in their safety performance.

Why is it that chasing Zero Injuries eventually produces this plateau?

To get at this answer, we need to look into the world of quality improvement, and in particular I want to consider the work of Dr. W. Edwards Deming, Statistical Process Control and general-all-around-quality-guru.

For those of you who don’t know who Deming is, I’ll give you the short version.

After World War II, Dr. Deming approached the US Automakers and told them if they would listen to his somewhat radical theories on quality improvement they could revolutionize quality and make vehicles that would last longer and build more loyal customers.

There was just one problem with Deming’s idea: The big 3 US automakers were actually delighted when something went wrong on a car (so long as it was out of warranty.) If enough things failed on a car, then the customer would bring it to the dealership and they would trade it for a new one. This strategy even had a name… “planned obsolescence”.

Planned obsolescence is why, as a little boy, just six years old, I remember admiring the beautiful chrome “Cadillac” emblems inside my dad’s 1969 Cadillac Sedan DeVille. About two years after Dad bought his new Caddy, right on schedule, those emblems would fall off. This “defect” provided a pretty big NIC for my Dad (a negative, immediate, & certain consequence).

I’m not sure what else went wrong on Dad’s car, but soon enough, he headed for the dealership to swap for a new car (a very big PIC for both him and me!)

“Planned Obsolescence” had sold another car again. Strange as it may seem, this strategy of building poor quality into a product was a PFC (positive, future, certain) consequence for the major US Automakers in the fifties and sixties.

As you might imagine, Deming’s words of wisdom fell on deaf ears at the Big 3.

So that’s why he went to Japan.

Here, as is often the case, one man’s NIC is another man’s PIC.

The Japanese (who were looking for ways to grab US market share) listened to Deming and they designed quality into their products, making them better, cheaper, and more fuel efficient than their US competition.

Needless to say, the Japanese taught US manufacturers a vital lesson in quality versus planned obsolescence. About PICS versus NICS in product design and market share.

In a nutshell, here’s how Deming gave the Japanese the winning hand in quality…

When a factory produces a part that is defective and fails to meet specifications, then the part must be either scrapped or re-worked, or worse yet, it ships to the customer creating an unhappy customer, who eventually stops buying the product. Any of these options is expensive and wasteful.

Deming taught that quality should be measured at every step in the process. Rather than get the car fully assembled, and counting defects at the tail end, every step in the assembly process needed to have statistical analysis to see if the process was in control, or out of control. Hence the name “Statistical Process Control”.

Deming and other quality leaders have revolutionized manufacturing methods today. Measuring quality now involves hundreds and sometimes thousands of interim checks to be sure quality standards are met at each and every part of the product’s birth cycle.

So how does all this relate to safety?

I remember being at Boeing, with a talented group of leaders, and I told them I had a crazy idea for them….

Instead of spending so much money on quality assurance personnel and quality testing for their aircraft, I suggested they might fire their whole quality department and save a lot of money.

In its place, put up posters and hand out T-Shirts that say “Zero Defects Our Goal”. Tell the employees to “Build a good quality plane!”.

And lastly, measure quality by the number of customer complaints they get on each aircraft.

Can Boeing run their company this way?

What do you think?

Can you run your company this way?

Not a chance.

Everyone agrees that it would be impossible to run a company this way–Quality is something that must be integrated with production every step of the way.

But that is exactly how we run safety today in most companies.

We put up posters that say “Zero Injuries Is Our Goal” and we tell the employees to “Be Safe Now! You hear?”

Next, we count the “safety defects” after they have occurred… e.g. how many recordable injuries were there last month? What is our incidence rate? Did we have any fatalities? Did we get our safety award bonus?

Accidents are simply another kind of defect—a deviation from the standard of perfection. And, like quality, these defects must be detected and eliminated at the moment they first appear.

My good friend Kenny Sawyer says that companies with injuries “rehearse those injuries thousands of times until they get them right.” What Kenny meant is that there are often many “early warning” behavioral indicators that tell us an injury is going to happen. All too often, these at-risk behaviors are ignored due to the perceived importance of production and profits.

In light of all this, I would like to suggest a better slogan for your next company T-Shirt and poster campaign:

“Our New Goal: Zero Unsafe Behaviors & Conditions”

Will you ever fully achieve this goal? Maybe. Maybe not.

But if you chase zero unsafe behaviors you will finally get to zero injuries, or darn near close. You will instill in your culture the idea that it’s not “ok” to “rehearse for a fatality”.

So later today, why don’t you go tear down all those old “Zero Injury” signs and posters you have displayed. Put up new ones with my slogan above. You don’t owe me any money for using it. If it saves just one life, that will be more than payment enough for me.

16 Responses to “Zero Injuries is Not Your Goal”

  1. March 22nd, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    Silvia Van Dusen says:

    Sharing this with my co-workers. Also, would like to know if you ever do speaking engaements with supervisory/management level people and/or executives.



  2. March 22nd, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    James Bolinger says:

    I love this idea nd never thought of it. The hardest thing is to get my production Managers and Team Leaders on board and get them to do safet war it’s and not just me being the safety police. I will present this to upper management and will start utilizing this great idea. Thanks

  3. March 22nd, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    todd klementz says:

    this is great and will be used by me in the field.

  4. March 22nd, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    Tim Ludwig says:

    Good job Bill. I’ve been integrating Deming into safety discussions for years and I get the same amazement you do.

    Its a fundamental set of principles most folks in operations now live by. Its kind of amazing that those principles have not migrated into safety.


  5. March 22nd, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    John Olesky,CSP says:

    The problem with making a goal of Zero accidents is that the first time you have an accident which then makes it impossible make the goal anymore. You then loose the incentives to keep going.. If you cannot reach or acheive the goal many employees and management will wonder why you even still have the goal.

  6. March 22nd, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    Bill Sims Jr. says:

    Yes, we do speaking engagements – I’ll have someone contact you… and thanks so much for sharing this with others!

  7. March 22nd, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    Bill Sims Jr. says:

    Thanks Ron! I am thankful that I get to work every day to help companies keep their people safe.

  8. March 22nd, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    Joe Medrano says:

    Very interesting concept indeed. Our company leaders have always issued a goal of over zero. But this year decided that was the wrong thinking too. So they are saying thier goal is Zero injuries. in fact a poster was just put out this year for it.

  9. March 23rd, 2012 at 1:36 am

    Augustine Jimoh says:

    Great write up and opens up new window of opportunities to truly improve safety performance by driving to “zero unsafe behaviors and conditions”.

  10. March 23rd, 2012 at 2:30 am

    Pramod Shukla India says:

    Grate Idea…. Which could be shared amongst top core management team .
    Demings example in details and relation of quality with safety is a good comparison to make understance it.

    Pramod Shukla
    PGL India

  11. March 23rd, 2012 at 11:16 am

    Don Wilson says:

    You’re always coming up with new and inventive approaches to BBS. I’ve always said that ZERO is unattainable but a nice number to strive for but just how close you get always depends on the commitment level of those involved. Love popping by to see what your up too Bill….:)

  12. March 24th, 2012 at 6:52 am

    Ed Napiorkowski says:

    Really interesting article with direct relevance to the Organisation I’m working for. Hopefully we can create a ground swell and apply this!

  13. March 24th, 2012 at 6:45 pm

    Don Andrechek says:

    Hi Bill, great article.
    I believe Zero is acheivable. If we have the right management system in place where everyone has defined roles and resonsibilities and are accountable for their actions, hell ya we could have zero injuries. When we strive for less than zero, then what are saying? one, two, three injuries are ok?
    I like to say that when organizations have injuries there is a defect in the management system, when employees attitudes and behaviours are improper it is the defect in the management system, when board of directors, presidents, CEO’s, managers, are not accountable for their roles and resposibilities for Health and Safety it is a defect in the mangement system.
    Only when we can think the impossible, will it become possible to really think.

  14. March 26th, 2012 at 9:26 am

    Jim Lewis says:

    I agree zero unsafe acts is the goal. However, the problem I often see can be demonstrated by the statistics from job behavioral observations. I have many supervisors that find zero at risk behaviors during the course of the year. Based on the injuries we are seeing clearly we are not at 0 unsafe acts. In some cases I feel it is a conflict avoidance behavior by the supervisor but also since we made it a vision (goal we strive to get to and can get very close but probably not better than six sigma) I’m getting the “number” they think I want to see. I need for unsafe acts to be viewed somewhat positive as we have found an opportunity to coach and get closer to target zero.

  15. March 26th, 2012 at 6:39 pm

    Kenn Rogers says:

    Maybe there is even more to it than just behaviours and conditions
    A target of Destination Zero can only be met when 5 targets are met: Zero Unsafe Conditions, Zero Unsafe Behaviours, Zero Unsafe Equipment, Zero Unsafe Procedures, Zero Organisational Failures.
    Only when all 5 are met can we truly have a zero result

  16. March 27th, 2012 at 10:53 pm

    Wayne McCoy says:

    Very interesting concept you have provided. And I must say I am one person that believed in zero injuries because I think that it is achievable and have seen it being achieved (previous employer had 4 years no LTI/MTI/FAI) in a heavy steel industry. Nowdays, I am not so sure of the zero incidents/injuries slogans (although I agree with the want to achieve such a goal and applaud that). I am more leaning to what you are saying (Zero Unsafe Behaviors & Conditions) as that is something that I have introduced here with good reslts (great results may follow later). The challenge is to convince Corporate (Australia and then Belgium – the real Head Office) of advertising this goal to achieve the ultimate. I think another way of doing this is to aim for an Injury Free day every day, but do so via encouraging safe behaviour/conditions and correcting unsafe behaviour/conditions.


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