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Could Zero Harm be killing our people?

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"Could Zero Harm be killing our people?" Yes, says veteran OHS expert Phillip Byard ahead of his October 29 address to The Safety Conference. Mr Byard is one of 50 expert speakers who will address The Safety Conference. The Safety Conference, presented by exhibition organisers Australian Exhibitions & Conferences , will run during Safe Work Australia Week from October 27 to 29 at the Sydney Showground. 

Mr Byard, an InterSafe Group consultant, says Zero Harm distracts employers from the most important safety issues. "In recent years, there has been widespread adoption of the notion of 'Zero Harm'. Zero incidents, zero accidents, zero harm, zero tolerance – the goal is zero," says Mr Byard.

"Moral outrage would ensue if any legislation considered any level of workplace personal damage acceptable. The concept of Zero Harm may be socially, politically and legally attractive but is the concept of Zero Harm helpful? Is it possible that we are managing what matters least?"

Damage creates a hierarchy of consequences. Fatalities are a higher-level consequence than first aid treatments.

"The impact of a fatality on lives, families, organisations and communities is significantly greater than a scratch on a hand," Mr Byard explains.

Mr Byard says that secondly, the number of occurrences for higher levels of damage is much smaller than the number of occurrences for lower levels of damage.

"Fatalities are few in number but have highest level consequence. First aid treatments are many in number but have lowest level actual consequences. In its purest form, Zero Harm ignores all this."

Mr Byard classifies the consequence of injury into three classes.

I. Class I Damage: permanently alters a person's future
The person is unable to fully return to work, or life, regardless of medical or surgical intervention. Damaging occurrences in Class I include multiple fatalities, single fatalities and permanently disabling outcomes, or Non Fatal Permanent Damage (NFPD) such as amputations, impaired backs or shoulders, or psychological disturbance.

II. Class II Damage: temporarily alters a person's future
The person is able to fully return to work and life after appropriate medical intervention. The body has the capability of complete functional restoration. Typical injuries include broken bones, lacerations, or strained muscles.

III. Class III Damage: only inconveniences a person
Persons are quickly able to return to work and life. Class III Damage includes minor cuts, bruises or abrasions. In many cases, people continue to work and live with Class III Damage without medical intervention. In some cases application of ice or a band-aid simply speeds up recovery.

Pointing to statistics released by the Australian Safety Compensation Council this year, Mr Byard says that in 2005/06, Class I Permanent Damage represented only 10% of the captured incidents but 90% of captured costs to employers, employees and the community.

"A Pareto or 80/20 relationship exists. Current classification systems based on lost time injuries (LTIs) and treatment regimes do not clearly focus efforts and resources towards permanently life altering outcomes."

"Most government jurisdictions and organisations measure workplace safety performance by lag indicators of fatalities and LTIs. Many organisations report their success by frequency rates associated with these measures. But, as Einstein said, 'Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted'.

Mr Bryard continued to comment that driving employers to reduce their Lost Time Injury Frequency Rates (LTIFR) may predictably focus the efforts and strategies of organisations on reducing the majority of LTIs, which are short duration Class II damaging occurrences. This focus has at least two undesirable consequences. These are:

  1. We encourage employers to keep damaged people at work. Managers and workers report a range of strategies used by their organisations to avoid recording an LTI. Workplace personal damage that 10 years ago would have resulted in an LTI where recovery was achieved away from work is now managed by keeping people at work during recovery. An improving LTIFR could be more a measure of the success of a rehabilitation program and less a measure of the success of a workplace safety program.
  2. We encourage focus and strategies on short-term Class II, not Class I Non-Fatal Permanent Damage. Only 14% of all LTIs are Class I Non Fatal Permanent Damage. It would be possible for an organisation to see a reducing LTIFR but have no improvement in the reduction of Class I Non Fatal Permanent Damage.
Mr Byard says Zero Harm suggests every damaging occurrence is unacceptable from a Class I fatality to a Class III paper cut.

"The inevitable and logical conclusion of the Zero Harm proposition is that resources will not be allocated appropriately. Current Safety Activity needs a clear focus. The goal of eliminating Class I Permanent Damage is the only ethical and moral position that a government or employer can hold. Any other position inappropriately allocates resources away from effectively managing potential live changing experiences at work. This is the only harm that at the end of the day actually matters."

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