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Journey to a Zero Accident Culture

To follow up on our December Safety Academy Topic the “Journey to a Zero Accident Culture (ZAC)” is a belief stating that no one should be injured as the result of an accident in the workplace. It becomes more of an uncompromising belief / thought more than an actual numerical goal, in accident prevention terms, Zero Accident Culture 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 criticize it for being seen principally as a ‘numbers game’. However, top-down buy in is imperative in any successful organizational change in their culture. In terminology, the use of ‘Culture’ the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time. This is key, over and above ‘a standard safety policy’ which does not make safety personal enough to get the average employee striving to meet the zero accident culture goal – and not always for the right reasons. A Zero Accident Culture (ZAC):

  • 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 organizational and individual commitment, and
  • translates to commitment embedded in a company’s business strategy.

The goal of any organization should be to set a goal to decrease the number of occupational accidents within the organization. It is important that ZAC 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 organizations with successful Zero Accident Culture is a high ZAC commitment of management and workforce, which is often embedded in an organization’s business strategies. The four C’s which are central to a successful Zero Accident Vision are: Commitment, Communication, Culture, and Continued Learning. A common characteristic of organizations implementing successful ZAC's, is the commitment of management and workforce, often embedded in business strategies.

Commitment is a key driver for any long-term and sustainable improvements in organizational health and safety. For any new culture to develop management commitment is essential.  A successful ZAC 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.

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 characterized by shared goals/values, flat structures, employee empowerment, high levels of engagement and high performance.

ZAC 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 workforce will not see it as ‘hype’, revealing organizational safety commitment to be more than just words and paper-pushing.

While a genuine commitment of senior management is vitally important in any ZAC, 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 organizational ZAC commitment needs to be communicated to the entire workforce in order to impact the safety behaviors of the entire organization.

Successful communication needs to ensure that relevant information is transferred to respective organizational levels, as opposed to a ‘one-size fits-all’ strategy and should take into account decentralized initiatives. Effective safety communication for ZAC implementation covers constant and updated communication on functional tools, safety promotion programs and effective supervisor communication.  As communication climate covers superior-subordinate communication, quality and accuracy of downward information, upward communication, and perception of reliability. Good communication is recognized and considered a contributing factor to a positive safety climate.

“Culture concerns what and how people believe, feel, think and how they behave over time and how this is reflected in collective habits, rules, and social norms.   ZAC commitment of staff is sustainable when the commitment towards ‘all accidents being preventable’ becomes a key characteristic of the organizational culture. ZAC implies a need for a ‘proactive’ safety culture wherein risks are not only controlled, but unforeseen risks are also anticipated, recognized, and adequately dealt with. 

Safety culture topics are representative of a more mature organizational safety climate whereby managers and leaders to a greater degree are perceived by staff as prioritizing 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 organization 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 organization and causes are sought in a fair manner.

Safety empowerment and safety justice are both key areas that potentially have the greatest impact on ZAC. 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.

Continued Learning.
Similarly to how a ‘continued learning culture’ is a vital component for most organizations to stay in business in the ever-changing world we live in.  Safety efforts 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 ZAC. 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 organizational learning ‘attitude’ and ‘, which will, in turn, ‘foster the development and adoption of safety relevant innovations’. Organizations 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: 1) reporting and registration, 2) investigation and analysis, 3) translation of findings into action plans, and 4) acting and evaluating.
  • Learning conditions measure organizational 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 ZAC include safety promotion programs, constant and updated communication and functional tools, and effective supervisor communication.

Companies that have proved successful in this area have launched and branded a specific Zero Accident Culture or similar safety promotion programs in order to strengthen a collective mind-set. Such programs act as an important vessel via which top management can articulate an organization’s safety vision and demonstrate personal commitment. Communication strategies should encompass both formal and informal organizational communication, and bottom-up initiatives. The importance of constant and updated communication and functional tools cannot be under-emphasized. 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 organization's may wish to consider training in dialogue-based communication as well as training for those acting as safety facilitators.


Photo by John Gibbons

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