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Zero Incidents is a Bad Goal

Zero Incidents: Good Aspiration…Bad Goal

By Josh Williams, Ph.D.

For more than 25 years, I’ve heard senior leaders speak passionately about having zero incidents. This is often done with heartfelt messages and personal commitments to make it happen. This is a good thing in many ways:

However, setting a “goal” based on zero incidents is counterproductive. Small incidents like twisting an ankle or bee stings ruin the goal immediately. This discourages people when the goal is not reached, especially when it’s lost early in the year. Also, field personnel perceive that leaders are out of touch when they say no incidents will ever occur. This often creates a wedge between the field and corporate when unrealistic goals aren’t met.

Setting a goal based on zero incidents is also dangerous!

When leaders do this:

It’s appropriate to track and focus on other recordable metrics. And there should be an emphasis on preventing all incidents, even minor ones. However, leaders need to understand that the error precursors predicting SIFs are very different than those influencing minor injuries. Traditional recordable rates don’t predict an organization’s risk for catastrophic events. In one study, fatality rates were actually higher for those organizations that had lower overall incident rates (Saloniemi &Oksanen, 1998). There’s a reason that the Heinrich model isn’t widely used now. Bee stings don’t predict fatalities.

The airline industry has been a leader on this front. In general industry, SIF rates over the last 20 years have been relatively unchanged (even though TRIR rates have dropped 66%). In the airline industry, there have been 11 fatalities on commercial airlines in that same 20-year period despite more than 10 trillion miles flown in North America (NTSA). Also, there have been zero midair collisions since 1960 despite more than 20,000 commercial planes in the air at any given moment in time. Airline leaders have an almost singular focus on SIF prevention.

When it comes to goal setting, we should focus on improving proactive, leading indicators for safety. Let’s also learn from the airline industry. The primary “goal” with safety should be zero serious injuries and fatalities.

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