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Setting Zero Expectations

There’s No Going Back
Setting the bar high for safety performance is a noble cause. We all like to talk about the seemingly elusive target of “zero injuries.” People generally line up in one of two sides of this goal. There’s the “it’s impossible to have zero injuries” camp and then there’s the “why would we target anything less than zero” camp. (If you’ve read anything we have written in the past, you know which camp we hang out in!) The important thing to recognize is that once you set the expectation – whether it’s for “zero” or a goal that assumes someone will get hurt – it’s hard to go back to a goal where someone is injured. That’s why many corporate leaders are reluctant to set the goal at zero injuries. Yet, we have to ask the question I always ask, “Why would you establish a goal that was anything less than zero?” And when we say “less than zero” we mean setting a safety goal that includes an allowance for injuries. If management establishes a goal of 15 lost time injuries, for example, then the expectation is that employees cannot or will not do their jobs safely.

No Easy Task
Once the expectation is established that workers will not or cannot do their jobs safely, it takes a lot of work to establish a culture focused on the attainment of zero injuries. Yet, all is not lost. Management that truly wants to see employees go home every day without injuries of any kind, recordable or not, will be committed to doing whatever it takes to remove barriers to achieving zero injuries.

Courage and Tenacity Required
It takes courage and tenacity to set the goal at zero. Courage is required because there will be “naysayers” – those who say it’s not possible. We’ve witnessed some very strong debates – more like arguments – when it comes to shifting the corporate philosophy to one of zero injuries. Tenacity is essential because it’s hard to change a culture. It takes work for a safety culture change to be sustainable.

The big danger in changing to a zero injury culture is that human nature whats to return to the old culture. Corporate cultures tend to be elastic, springing back to the original, unless there is a significant, long-term effort. That’s why it takes unwavering management commitment to get a ground swell of employees who believe in and will do what it takes to “get to zero.”

The worst thing that can happen is that company leaders will set an expectation of meeting a target of zero injuries and then abandon the goal. That will only result in a loss of credibility, reinforce a belief that safety is not important, and give the “zero naysayers” a victory.

Avoid the Worst Case Scenario

Sure, you could avoid the worst case by not declaring zero as a goal.  But where does that get you?  Nowhere.

Here are some things you can do to make zero a sustainable goal in your organization:

1.        Set very specific goals that support a zero-injury culture such as involving all employees in at least three non-routine safety activities each year.  These can include working on a safety committee, investigating an incident, participating in work practice or technical training development, and any number of other tasks.

2.       Establish cardinal rules with specific consequences.  Many companies have identified safe work practices and safety rules that will lead to life-saving activity.  The consequence for lack of adherence to the rule is termination in these companies.  While this may seem a bit harsh to some, it sends the undeniable signal that employee safety is the highest priority.

3.       Establish documented safe work practices and develop the expectation that all affected leaders and employees know and follow the processes. 

These are just a few of the things you can do to build a zero injury culture that sticks.  Remember it takes time, tenacity and courage .  Do what it takes for the long-haul so everyone can go home every day without injury.

In our book, ZERO! Responsible Safety Management by Design you can find other tips for creating a zero-injury culture.  Zero! can be purchased at:


Carl Potter, CSP, CMC and Deb Potter, PhD, CMC work with organizations that want to create an environment where nobody gets hurt.  As advocates for zero-injury workplaces, they conduct assessments, seminars, workshops, advise industry leaders, and speak frequently at industry-specific and safety-related conferences. 

For information about dates for Open Enrollments of Carl’s Hazard Recognition and Control Workshop email me at

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