Zero Accident Vision (ZAV) is a viewpoint stating that no one ought to be injured as the result of an accident in the workplace. More a school of thought than an actual numerical goal, in accident prevention terms, Zero Accident Vision proposes that all accidents can be prevented and offers a basis for learning from accidents and improving processes should they occur.
There are two fields of thought when it comes to the concept of ‘zero accidents’ in the workplace; those who support the concept as integral to improving workplace safety and those who criticise it for being seen principally as a ‘numbers game’. However, top-down buy in is firmly at the root of any successful organisational ZAV strategy. In terminology, the use of ‘Vision’ (which inspires an ethos) is key, over and above ‘policy’ which does reek of striving to meet set targets – and not always for the right reasons.
However, of the several publications criticising ZAV, the main focus of the critical papers is not on implementation and thus far, there has been no empirical research on negative effects published.
A Zero Accident Vision (ZAV):
- is based on the assumption that all accidents are preventable
- focuses on safety commitment, communication, culture and learning
- is the basis for inspiring and innovation in improving safety
- is driven by organisational and individual commitment
- translates to commitment embedded in a company’s business strategy
The European Strategy of Health and Safety at work set the goal to decrease the number of occupational accidents in the EU by 25% by 2012, with the key aims of the project being to promote a zero accident vision at workplaces and exchange European experiences in the field. PEROSH (the Partnership for European Research in Occupational Safety and Health) project on "The Success factors for the Implementation of the Zero accidents Vision", financed by DGUV (Germany), was launched in December 2013.
Innovation of work processes, especially automation, and transformational leadership are the main enablers for a ZAV successful strategy over sanctions which, in this instance, are largely regarded as a compatible preventive measure (in order to prevent recurrence), rather than punitive. It is important that ZAV is not a (quantitative) target, but an ambition to make work safe, which necessitates a long-term journey and sustained efforts. A common characteristic of organisations with successful Zero Accident Visions is a high ZAV commitment of management and workforce, which is often embedded in an organisation’s business strategies.
Central to a successful Zero Accident Vision is:
Commitment is a key driver for any long-term and sustainable improvements in organisational health and safety. Factors key to a strong organisational safety commitment (and the extent of engagement with safety promotion and accident prevention in an organisation) include a strong belief and acceptance of an organisation’s goals and values, a compliance with exerting considerable effort on behalf of the organisation, and a strong desire to maintain membership in the organisation. A successful ZAV incorporates the idea of a commitment-based approach to safety management, whereby leadership is driven by concern and respect for the workforce, as opposed to a compliance-based approach, where motivation arises from adhering to legislation and cost-cutting.
Zwetsloot et al. (2013) further suggests the implementation of a ‘commitment strategy’ (originally developed in the area of HR management (Walton, 1985 ; Beer, 2009) in ZAV: in order that a ‘clear safety message’ from top management boosts safety performance and culture. Commitment should be regarded not any as a formal (written) commitment, but as active and visible support, in particular from senior management, business owners and directors. Commitment strategies oppose hierarchic and bureaucratic control and are characterised by shared goals/values, flat structures, employee empowerment, high levels of engagement and high performance.
ZAV commitment strategies should be closely linked to broader company strategies, including core ambitions, mission and vision and/or broader commitments to zero (for example, in production and quality, environmental issues, violence or substance abuse). Embedding such commitment in such a visible way, means the wider workforce will not see it as ‘hype’, revealing organisational safety commitment to be more than just words and paper-pushing.
Safe work and the moral philosophy of management should go hand-in-hand and revealed in demonstrated in daily tasks thus implying a ‘safety leadership’ and helping to embed a proactive safety culture, whereby the importance of safe working practices is clear and the working mind-set of all levels is focused on creating safety.
Such an approach further ensures safety and operational efficiency are fully integrated.
While a genuine commitment of senior management is vitally important in any ZAV, the success of any safety strategy cannot depend only on this alone and must be translated into concrete actions of the staff. This means that the organisational ZAV commitment needs to be communicated to the entire workforce in order to impact the safety behaviours of the entire organisation.
As a subset of organisational climate, ‘communication climate’ is referred to as relationships and interactions within the workplace (Keyton, 2011). According to Guzley, 1992 and Allen, 1992, communication climate covers superior-subordinate communication, quality and accuracy of downward information, upward communication, and perception of reliability. Good communication is recognised and considered a contributing factor to a positive safety climate.
Successful communication needs to ensure that relevant information is transferred to respective organisational levels, as opposed to a ‘one-size fits-all’ strategy and should take into account decentralised initiatives. Effective safety communication for ZAV implementation covers constant and updated communication on functional tools, safety promotion programmes and effective supervisor communication.
“Culture concerns what and how people believe, feel, think and how they behave (over time) and how this is reflected in collective habits, rules, norms, symbols and artefacts” (Rollenhagen, 2010). ZAV commitment of staff is sustainable when the commitment towards ‘all (serious) accidents being preventable’ becomes a key characteristic of the organisational culture. ZAV implies a need for a ‘generative’ or ‘proactive’ safety culture (Zwetsloot et al., 2013 ; Parker et al., 2006), wherein risks are not only controlled, but unforeseen risks are also anticipated, recognised, and adequately dealt with (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2007), and where the desire to improve safety levels is continuous which in itself implies strong and shared safety values, involvement and ownership by the entire workforce. We have more recently seen a shift in focus from measuring safety culture to safety climate (the surface manifestation or snapshot of the underlying culture), observed by using a combination of psychometric and qualitative approaches.
Safety culture topics are representative of a more mature organisational safety climate whereby managers and leaders to a greater degree are perceived by staff as prioritising safety on a daily basis – even when working under production pressure – and managers are additionally viewed as more competent in dealing with everyday safety issues. Moreover, in an organisation with a successful safety culture, managers are observed to be better at creating an open atmosphere for communication on safety grounds and ensuring everyone has the information they need on safety. Positive safety cultures empower workers to take part in discussions and decisions regarding issues of safety. A just, ‘no blame’ culture in terms of accidents and incidents pervades such an organisation and causes are sought in a fair manner.
Safety empowerment and safety justice are both key areas that potentially have the greatest impact on ZAV. Strive for sincerity in mandates and support from top management, empower to stop production on safety grounds, create an atmosphere of openness where discussion of mistakes is encouraged in order to learn from them and create participative improvement processes encouraging front line staff to have influence on decisions of safety in order to build trust between workers and business leaders.
Similarly to how a ‘learning culture’ is a vital component for safety efforts in the HRO (see our blog post about High Reliability Organisations) that also strives for a culture of 'zero accidents', both individual and collective learning play an essential role in the on-going safety improvement processes, required of an effective ZAV. By inference, both the adequate education and training of managers and workers are needed in order to ensure their safety competencies, as well as collective learning from experiences, planned safety actions, incidents and accidents, as well as from unforeseen situations and events. This requires an organisational learning ‘attitude’ and ‘climate’ (Drupsteen and Wybo, 2015), which will, in turn, ‘foster the development and adoption of safety relevant innovations’ (Littlejohn et al., 2014).
Organisations should split out the key elements of learning into:
Learning actions which involve taking action following the observations, near-misses and incidents (accidents/injuries) outlined above, in order to learn from incidents employing a ‘process model’ of:
- reporting and registration
- investigation and analysis
- translation of findings into action plans
- acting and evaluating ( Drupsteen et al., 2013).
Learning conditions measure organisational conditions that facilitate safety learning, or rather that there exists an openness for improvements, and that ideas are shared and reflected upon.
Relevant success factors specific to an effective ZAV include:
- safety promotion programmes
- constant and updated communication and functional tools
- effective supervisor communication
Companies that have proved successful in this area have launched and branded a specific Zero Accident Vision or similar safety promotion programme in order to strengthen a collective mind-set. Such programmes act as an important vessel via which top management can articulate an organisation’s safety vision and demonstrate personal commitment. Communication strategies should encompass both formal and informal organisational communication, and bottom-up initiatives.
The importance of constant and updated communication and functional tools cannot be under-emphasised. A wide variety of different media and means should be considered including; safety briefings, newsletters, info screens, videos, safety days and events, monthly safety themes, and mobile apps.
The active role in communicating safety matters and supervisors empowering workers should further be stressed – and not in terms of delivering one-way feedback. Dialogue-based communication practices should be employed including morning meetings, toolbox talks, safety walks and workshops, to create a two-way dialogue and enhance an environment of transparency and trust. It is possible that organisations may wish to consider training in dialogue-based communication as well as training for those acting as safety facilitators.
For all its opponents (and we do understand the reasoning behind such a viewpoint), an effective Zero Accident Vision, when implemented correctly, can be the foundation stones laid for inspiring innovative approaches for improving safety, as an integral part of the business cycle.