Zero incidents: Achieving a new safety culture

Zero incidents aims to completely eliminate all events that result in an injury, property damage, or lost workday case. If safety goals are not set at zero, an employer sends a message to employees that severe and disabling incidents are acceptable.

By James E. Roughton and David Crowley July 1, 1999

Zero incidents aims to completely eliminate all events that result in an injury, property damage, or lost workday case. If safety goals are not set at zero, an employer sends a message to employees that severe and disabling incidents are acceptable.

Safety must be an integral component of an overall business plan for any company. Safety controls must be designed into every aspect of a job, thereby promoting awareness and continuous improvement in the program. Zero incidents should be a company vision rather than a target or performance goal.

Goal setting

Picture this scenario: You are the manager of a facility and want to implement a new program that you believe will improve your safety performance. You decide to let all employees know what past incident rates are for the facility. In doing so, you also establish goals that you want to achieve. You decide to communicate with your employees by posting annual goals on the safety bulletin board.

On this board, the following statistics appear:

ABZ Co. safety statistics:


Last year Goal

Recordable cases 122 61

Lost work day cases 32 16

Do you think that these are acceptable goals? In one way, this view states that you expect employees to get hurt at a rate of 50% less than the previous year. Is this the message that you really want to send? While it is natural to use numbers and statistics to measure compliance to a particular goal, it is more important to send the message that what you are striving for is zero incidents.

The best way to reach this goal is to set a company vision of zero incidents. Employees and managers must agree that it is unacceptable for any disabling injuries or lost workday cases to occur. In theory, if a company promotes a clear vision of zero lost-time incidents, then, in theory, recordable injuries will diminish at a remarkable rate.

Culture-based approach

The first step toward achieving zero incidents is to pursue a change in the overall safety culture. A culture is an attitude that develops over time, based upon learning, personal experiences, beliefs, and upbringing.

When there is change in a cultural norm, most people tend to resist the change. Safety culture change is an evolving process for some and a revolution for others.

Safety culture change

How does the culture change? There are many ways to achieve the desired results of zero incidents. The fundamental methods involve a grassroots approach of empowering the employee. In addition, top management support and promoting leadership actions within the organization will enhance the visibility of the safety culture.

The following are some important steps that can be used to foster a change in a company safety culture toward zero incidents.

1 Define and communicate the need for change. This step must come from top management. Management must communicate with employees and explain why the change has to occur. Most importantly, management must demonstrate how the employee will benefit from the change in safety culture.

2 Envision a desired result. Management must provide direction-setting goals and target objectives to achieve the vision of zero incidents. Demonstrated commitment must be evident from all levels of management. Too often, management voices its commitment, yet it does not know how to visibly demonstrate that commitment to employees.

3 Survey and assess the safety culture. Actively solicit employee input and, in return, provide feedback to them. Look at both technical and human factors, and identify and remove barriers that prevent desired performance. Evaluate environmental, organizational, and cultural influences.

4 Strategic planning. Use the data collected from the survey to define critical issues and prioritize them accordingly. Develop goals and objectives that are aligned with the overall mission statement of the corporation. Determine the barriers that exist and create a strategy to break them down.

5 Implementation. Create changes in behavior using:

– Resources

– Focus and consistency

– Action

– Trust

– Communication

– Demonstrated commitment.

6 Evaluate, control, and measure the results. Review progress and measure results on a regular basis. Look at the continuous improvement process. Are incidents increasing or decreasing? If there is an increase, the system is out of control. A decrease indicates that the system is improving and appears to be working.


Now that your safety culture is in the beginning stages of undergoing change, it is necessary that you change the norms that exist in the company culture. Norms are the activities that we do every day without thinking. They become the accepted way we do our business: “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” But to achieve a new safety culture, many of these norms must be changed.

To change the norms, some fundamental steps must be defined.

– Understand why unsafe norms exist in an organization

– Clarify that past unsafe conditions are unacceptable

– Identify unsafe behaviors that are keeping you from achieving your goal

– Define the unstated norms (unwritten rules) behind those actions

– Specify desired safety norms and proclaim that all incidents are preventable

– Communicate the way you want the new program to work

– Plan system changes to reinforce new norms.

Once these issues are understood, the safety culture will start to transform. The change will not happen overnight, but will come gradually.


Management, the safety professional, and employees all play differing, but key, roles in developing the new safety culture.


Most of the time, management and employees are blamed for deficiencies in the system (an incident). In reality, it is usually the management system alone that is to blame. Management must come to the realization that the organization needs to commit resources to allow safety improvements.

Safety professional

The term “traffic cop” has been used to describe the safety community in the past. Even today, some companies still consider the safety professional “at fault” when an incident occurs.

However, the zero incidents safety culture understands that safety professionals are the driving force behind management. The safety professional is a consultant who provides the appropriate mentoring, coaching, and guidance to help management make the right decisions. But, one must remember that executive management must be the authority; top-level managers must make the final decision.


One of the keys to success is to involve employees in the safety process. Employees must understand that they must take an active role in the development and planning of the new safety culture. It is vitally important to the success of the process that employees are provided with the tools, funding, and resources to accomplish the given tasks.


The question remains, “Can zero really be achieved?” Is it realistic to think that any firm can reach this vision? The answer is yes. With the full support of management and employees, the goal can become a reality. Many people do not believe that it can be achieved; others choose to debate that it is unrealistic, but if you never try, you will never know.

— Edited by Cheryl M. Firestone, Senior Editor, 630-320-7136,

Key concepts

“Zero incidents” is the elimination of loss-producing events that result in an injury, property damage, or lost work day case.

Management and employees must agree that it is unacceptable for any disabling injuries or lost-workday cases to occur, and their commitment must be demonstrated.

For zero incidents to become a reality, the overall safety culture must change.

Psychology of safety

Past articles written by notable psychologists have promoted behavior modification as a technique to achieve success in safety. This approach follows the belief that by changing people, injuries will be eliminated.

The zero-incidents concept is achievable and a zero-incident safety culture can work when it is properly communicated. The system will work if top management and employees pull together toward the common vision of zero incidents.

In a zero-incident safety culture, one focuses on real-time issues. Nobody should ever think that it is acceptable to suffer a disabling injury while at work or home. It is up to management to convince the skeptics that zero is a reachable vision, a reality. Adopt the cultural belief that all accidents and incidents are preventable.

Any company that institutes a cultural change toward the zero incidents concept is bound to see safety improvements that the entire workforce can be proud of.

Role of management in implementing change

Management’s commitment to change in the safety culture is crucial in the success of zero incidents. Several steps should be taken to begin the change:

– Focus on the management system

– Use the leadership position to empower employees at all levels to take responsibility for the safety of themselves and others around them.

– Inform employees of how things need to change

– Communicate the changes

– Involve employees in determining the required changes

– Reinforce and reward desired behaviors

– Educate employees on new skills sets

– Orient new managers to the new norms

– Allocate resources, time, and funding

– Focus on tasks at hand without placing blame

– Publicize successes/failures/lessons learned

– Provide feedback to all affected groups regularly.

More info

The authors are available to answer questions regarding this article. Mr. Roughton can be reached via e-mail at safeday@ Mr. Crowley can be reached at

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