Thinking Differently About Target Zero

Over the past decade, many companies and utilities centered the goal of safety to target zero.

Sep 19th, 2014

By Matt Forck

Over the past decade, many companies and utilities centered the goal of safety to target zero. It is both a journey (to achieve zero injuries and incidents) and a destination (a milestone to be achieved each day, week, year over year). But now that some companies are more than a decade into target zero, it might be time to think about it a little differently.

On a seemingly unrelated note, last year I was reacquainted with integers when my daughter was studying the concept and needed help. The reality is that numbers don't stop at zero-the number line actually goes past zero, to negative 1, negative 2-negative one million and beyond. In fact, when looking at integers, zero is just the center point on a number line and there are an equal number of numbers on each side of zero.

In the late 1800s, less than a dozen men met in St. Louis, Missouri. They were electrical lineman in this new and emerging industry. In the meeting, they decided to do something radical. At that point in time, safety was trial and error. On average, one out of two men who began a career as a lineman would be killed on the job. This group of men formed what would eventually be called the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. They wanted better working conditions, pay and safety.

From those roots, safety for line workers and utility workers began to improve. Standards developed, as did working clearances, national electric safety codes, PPE, then OSHA. The industry went from the bleak fact that nearly one in two workers were killed on the job, to a much more sustainable safety program. Yet, 100 years later, the industry looked within and didn't like what it saw. While fatalities were infrequent, men and women were getting hurt. Total injuries still numbered in the dozens or hundreds. And serious life changing events were still occurring, and all too frequent. One by one, many utilities began to shift values, moving to include safety as a value and live that value through a theme-target zero. Today, numbers are much lower, with some utilities going long stretches with zero incidents or injuries.

Target zero is absolutely the right safety value, but, moving forward, our thinking of target zero will change. When it was first introduced over a decade ago, it was clearly a destination-an aspirational goal. Yet today, with the successes and improvements we have had in eliminating injuries and improving work conditions, we are slowly starting to understand, just as my daughter did in her math class, that zero is not an end point, a stopping point or a destination, but a mid point. In safety we can clearly hit target zero for injuries and also employ safety programs and strategies that take us far beyond zero.

Believe: Henry Ford coined the following phrase, "Whether you believe you can or believe you can't, you are generally correct." If you would have asked line workers in 1900 what was possible in utility safety, they would never have said target zero-they didn't fathom working conditions where workers and management alike shared that value. But, about a decade ago, beliefs began to change-and target zero beliefs were born. Today, we are just starting to push thoughts and programs that actually send our workers home in better condition in which they came. These programs include health and wellness programs, and motivational and leadership programs that tap into our workers talents.

Expect It: Today, many target zero posters and value statements include something about being responsible and accountable for safety. That is a good and necessary part of the target zero process, but, over the last decade, it has many times been understood by our workers to mean discipline for breaking safety rules. Employers must be proactive in rewarding positive actions and redirecting choices that are not aligned with target zero. As we move beyond zero, safety accountability begins to take on an expanded meaning, "What more can I do for safety results."

Living Safety: A number of years ago, Bruce Larson went to a corporate board foundation. The foundation funded research and Bruce had an idea. Bruce wanted to tour the United States and Europe and interview the most successful business leaders and politicians of the time, asking them one question: If you had to sum up success in one word, what would that word be? The foundation liked the proposal and funded the research. After two years and hundreds of interviews, Bruce returned to inform the board he had found the secret. The one-word secret to success-risk. But, Bruce understood that risk didn't mean taking a chance or a short cut, he categorized risk into a number of areas, one being emotional risk. Emotional risk is when you do something you are a little nervous to do, it is positive and powerful and it is for yourself or for someone else.

If we are going to hit target zero, then move beyond zero, we need to take emotional risks each and every day. Living safety means you take emotional risks. We give feedback to our co-workers. We stop jobs to review hazards. We ask about job planning and we check for all PPE and rule compliance. Living safety is giving and taking emotional risks (feedback).

Target zero is today's value-in time the industry will move beyond zero and values will shift. Believe, Expect and Live!

Matt Forck, CSP and JLW, is a keynote speaker and writer specializing in the field of worker safety. Matt serves clients across the United States and more than 10 countries. He lives in Columbia, Mo. with his wife and two children. Eliminate shortcuts today with Bucket List. Learn more at

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