Learning from High Reliability Organisations to make Zero Harm a reality

“Zero Harm” refers to a workplace that operates without exposing any worker to injury, leading to zero injuries and zero deaths. All over Australia, organisations have adopted Zero Harm policies and launched Journey to Zero programs.

But is Zero Harm realistic, and (if so) how can it best be achieved? What can we learn from high reliability organisations?

Is Zero Harm achievable?

It is important to acknowledge that not everyone believes Zero Harm is possible. Ivensky (2016) found a gap between company policies and what workers believe: while most OH&S policies confidently state that all injuries are preventable therefore zero is an achievable target, only 45% of surveyed safety professionals and 35% of the wider workforce believe this is realistic. This belief gap has led to some commentators to call for an incremental approach that will make it easier to foster safety engagement.

The truth is that Zero Harm is aspirational, but it is achievable. Getting there will take time, patience, hard work and the right tools. Below, we explore five tips from high reliability organisations that will help safety professionals in their Journey to Zero.

Learning from High Reliability Organisations (HROs)

High reliability organisations are those that maintain extremely high levels of safety over long periods with zero or minimal harmful events, even in high-risk industries such as mining, defence and aviation.

The strong safety records at HROs are no fluke: they are the result of high reliability frameworks that encompass everything from data monitoring to cultural change. In a paper about reducing errors in healthcare, PwC identified the following five attributes of HROs.

1. Employ system-wide thinking

System-wide thinking means seeking to understand the direct and indirect causes of an incident or near-miss across the whole system. It involves considering every risk when implementing process changes and focusing on standardisation to reduce the dangers of variation in the system. Improvements are implemented consistently across the entire organisation rather than in just one function or area.

System-wide thinking involves considering more than immediate circumstances when an incident occurs. For example, the UK Bawa-Garba case (2015) originally assigned full blame to an individual doctor over the tragic death of a child in her care. Upon appeal, however, the court reinstated Bawa-Garba’s medical registration after taking into account wider circumstances and system-wide failures including resourcing shortfalls, poor escalation practices and a defective hospital IT system.

2. Proactively seek feedback

HROs develop a robust and effective feedback loop to drive continuous improvement and understand the system-wide causes of errors. Importantly, feedback is encouraged as a positive exercise and care is taken to avoid a culture of blame.

Continuous improvement means safety procedures and controls are not set in stone, but are constantly evaluated, revised and streamlined in line with emerging risks revealed through feedback.

3. Ensure compliance and audit functions can respond to emerging risks

Immature compliance and audit functions are purely reactive and apply learnings only after an incident has taken place. At the other end of the scale, highly mature functions keep close tabs on emerging risks (through the abovementioned feedback loops) and are agile enough to respond as required.

For example, a gap emerged at the beginning of the Covid pandemic between organisations that waited for government safety mandates before taking action versus those who read the situation and launched proactive health precautions.

4. Use data effectively

HROs use sophisticated tools to collect data across the entire enterprise and spot emerging risks and address them before an incident occurs. Rather than simply tracking safety incidents, they extend their focus to safety-related compliance levels, near-miss reporting, measuring safety engagement and risky workplace behaviours.

Cited’s end-to-end workforce compliance platform is an essential tool for risk and safety professionals to gain instant visibility of the organisation’s entire compliance status. Cited generates all the reporting and evidence needed to stay on top of risk issues before they even occur. Any workers who don’t meet safety requirements will stand out immediately, providing the confidence that the workforce is consistently meeting safety standards.

5. Nurture a safety culture

Creating a safety culture means employees are highly engaged in safety activities and celebrate great results. Accountability flows from the top, self-reporting is encouraged without fear of negative consequences and pro-safety behaviour is rewarded. Organisations are open to new ideas that will reduce risk and boost compliance levels.

Cited is a cloud-based digital platform that makes it simple to onboard and monitor your direct workforce, contractors, and suppliers to achieve total workforce compliance, including critical safety compliance to help your organisation in its Journey to Zero.