Below Zero Injuries

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Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until your good is better and your better is best.” 

raised-hands volunteer

Your annual injury rate is a static number.  It can define your safety program performance but injury rates can seem random.  It’s frustrating working so hard to reduce that rate only to have it bounce around arbitrarily. 

That Zero Harm goal on all the posters may seem insurmountable. A more fruitful path is to get to the numbers behind the number… a path to get you below zero.  Let’s learn how some companies achieve Below Zero…

Best-in-practice Behavioral Safety Programs

One of the cool things I get to do is work with the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies (CCBS).  CCBS is a not-for-profit organization whose mission it is to reduce human suffering through the application of behavioral science.  Applications of behavioral science have impact on people (and animals) through work in autism and human services, in schools and prisons, attacking violence and encouraging volunteering, and, of course, increasing safe behaviors in the workplace.  Check us out (

CCBS accredits the best-in-practice behavioral safety programs around the world.  This means these behavioral safety programs use the principles of behavior science associated with significant reduction in injuries.   Currently we have 23 accredited programs empirically showing behavioral safety can indeed reduce injuries significantly.  Better yet, we all get to learn from these programs.

It’s cool to visit these programs, meet amazing people, and learn what makes them great.  It’s a beautiful thing to review data where injury rates are near zero and have been for many years.  See for yourself - check out the injury recordable data from Eastman Chemicals Acetate Fiber Division (AFD) and Marathon Petroleum Company Illinois Refining Division (IRD) below.  Feel free to go to and check out other companies whose applications show their data and describe their behavioral safety programs in detail.

Eastman Chemical AFD

Marathon Petroleum IRD

Most of these companies experienced the two S-Curves. The first drop in injuries was achieved grabbing the low-hanging fruit by implementing sound safety management systems like processes and rules, guarding and LOTO, discipline and reward programs, training, safety meetings and the like.   They then experienced a “plateau” and needed to involve their employees to start the next S-Curve.  They studied, learned, and ultimately adopted behavioral safety.  The second S-Curve got them substantially below industry standards and near zero.

Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until your good is better and your better is best.” 

I learned this poem in grade school.  The author is unknown but many literary folks think it stems from the 1800’s.  It seems to be the motto of the folks at these accredited sites. They are always looking for further improvement to get closer to zero. 

Yet statistically, the closer you get to zero the harder it gets. 

It’s like asking your friend to stretch a rubber band in front of you.  Pretend the stretched rubber band is your industry’s average for injuries.  You work hard to pull that injury rate down.  Much like grabbing the middle of that rubber band and pulling… easy at first but then it gets increasingly harder.  What does that rubber band want to do?  Bounce back up. 

Consider all the forces trying to increase injuries: aging equipment, aging workforces and new workers, cost cutting and production pressures, new leadership, etc The further you pull toward zero injuries the more pressure you’ll feel trying to force that number back up. 

So staying near zero is an achievement by itself.  But its not very satisfying or reassuring.  Lets discuss how to get Below Zero – even if you’re not near zero, this may be a path to consider.

Reporting – Measuring Communication

I’ve suggested in previous blogs that a good definition for “safety culture” is people talking to one another.  Communication is the key to a positive safety culture: Peers giving feedback about risk to peers, supervisors sharing safety tips with their team, managers looking at data and asking questions.  The more everyone talks about safety the better.

One type of communication that is critical to reducing injuries is when employees communicate where hazards are, what risks are being taken, and when they have a close call or minor injuries.

Reporting is a behavior we can promote among our employees. Reporting helps us discover where injuries lurk. Reporting allows us to intervene proactively to make the workplace safer before injuries happen.  Reporting is a measure of communication and a really good one. 

Every CCBS accredited site measures reporting.  It’s easy to see the relationship between increases in reporting and decreases in injuries.

Marathon Petroleum’s Illinois Refining Division’s reporting increased in the number of behavioral safety observations turned in by their staff and contractor workforce.

Eastman Chemical’s Acetate Fiber Division’s reporting increased two ways.  The number of at-risk behaviors reported by their workforce in their behavioral safety program increased as did their near-miss reports in the same time period.

Flip it

To better understand the relationship between reporting and injuries, let’s take these same graphs and turn the reporting data upside down so that increases in reporting instead trend downward from zero.

Notice that injuries tend to decrease as if pulled down by reporting.  But this time instead of your hand struggling to pull down the rubber band you’ve got all those employees pulling it down together.

Injuries cannot go below zero and its rare and improbable to achieve zero injuries.  But you can achieve Below Zero with a strong reporting culture helping you fight the forces trying to increase your injury rate.  More reporting allows you to proactively mitigate hazards and risks catching these forces in the act…before they injure.  Its as if all of your employees are helping you hold that rubber band down!

Look to your improvement in reporting as your beacon of success (or area for improvement).  Your focus should be on increasing reporting and getting more sophisticated on how you use reporting to create a safer workplace.

Here is how you get BELOW ZERO

Costain, Ltd., a large CCBS accredited construction company in England has a sustained reduction in injury rate over the past 14 years corresponding to various manifestations of successful behavioral safety programs.  They have many innovations in behavioral safety that we could talk about.   However, their Reporting system and scorecard are exceptional.


Costain’s reporting system is a simple card designed to be easily used on construction sites and can be easily customized for each project, business segment or joint venture.  Typically supervisors write cards for employees.  These cards offer the opportunity to report hazards, behavioral risks, and close class on an anonymous, no-name/no blame basis.

What makes their system work is that reporting turns into actions. Reporting data is reviewed and analyzed, using ABC Analysis, for environmental and behavioral causes.  Then interventions are designed to make the workplace safer.  But they don’t stop there… they make sure the employees know their reporting resulted in these actions.  For example, some of their projects have adopted a “You Said, We Did” program where Costain managers take reports, act on them, and then advertise improvements back to the workforce citing the original observation.  Most reports are responded to even if they cannot be acted upon immediately.

This is a critical component.  If reporting results in nothing then reporting dies out (we call this “extinction”).  When reporting results in overt actions for a safer workforce then reporting will increase (we call this “reinforcement”).

Costain has a corporate scorecard containing many categories of important types of reporting such as high-potential near misses, close calls, hazards identified, safety observations that are tracked in time series across business segments and individual projects for trends.

They create an overall ratio based on the “Safety Triangle”. Numerical goals are set based on the theory that incidents should be a low percentage of close calls, which should be a low percentage of hazards, which is a still lower percentage of behavioral observations.  Goals specific to each project man-hours are set based on these percentages.   The ratios are defined so that any ratio over 100 is meeting the goal.  On one spreadsheet you can tell which projects of this large complex organization need improvement and which ones are “Below Zero”.  Costain’s “Engagement” ratio is to be put on the top-level executives’ corporate dashboard as one of their 7 key performance indicators.  How about that?? A leading indicator of safety performance has become a corporate KPI.

As a result Costain’s reporting has risen 75% in the past three years to over 30,000 close call/hazard reporting & observations in 2014.

Would you like to hold down that rubber band by yourself or have 30,000 others helping?

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Timothy Ludwig’s website is where you can read more safety culture stories and contribute your own.  Dr. Ludwig is a partner in Praxis2 and serves as a commissioner for Behavioral Safety Accreditation at the non-profit Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies (CCBS: and teaches behavioral psychology at Appalachian State University, in Boone, NC.  If you want Tim to share his stories at your next safety event you can contact him at



Greg Gottschalk

Electrical Engineering Manager

There's a good general solution at work here. There are stable statistical relationships between levels of mishap. For every fatality, there are many serious injuries. For every serious injury, there are many minor injuries. For every minor injury, there are many mishaps which did not result in injury and for every minor mishap, there are many risky behaviors. Shrinking the base of the pyramid can be the most powerful way to eliminate the top. But how can you shrink the behaviors at the base it if you don't know about them?
Increasing the rate of hazard reporting is a powerful tool because it makes every employee a safety inspector. The base of the pyramid is never allowed to grow. Incentive and recognition programs that reinforce safe behaviors can also be coopted to drive hazard reporting.
In general, a similar approach could be used to mitigate non-safety-related undesirable outcomes. If you can find precursors to those outcomes and the circumstances that generate the precursors then getting people to report those circumstances can help put an end to those outcomes.
On a related note, Goldratt's Theory of Constraints offers a number of cause-effect mapping tools that may be useful in connecting the dots between circumstances, precursors and outcomes. Bill Dettmer’s “The Logical Thinking Process: A Systems Approach to Complex Problem Solving” is a useful guide to some of these tools.
The process could also be reversed to drive desirable outcomes.


Tom Reeves 

Tim, I've seen very similar patterns with Injury / Illness rates. As near-miss reporting and/or observation participation percentage goes up, injury rates tend to go down. Safety is a focus intensive activity and an organization must manage any distractions that may take focus off of executing safety. Voluntary participation can be a great leading indicator and we found that when our organization experienced a disruption, such as a major schedule change or an economic dip or increase, voluntary participation would dip -- maybe 5-10 percentage points. Based on that drop, we'd move as a leadership team to re-establish focus.


Joseph Mathew

It sounds good, a factual approach to real incidents and its reporting make things realistic.

Randy Creek

Senior Consultant, Environmental, Health and Safety at Chualar-Creek and Associates, LLC

Good subject. This is one of those dilemmas that is hard to can you have less that "zero" incident rate. If you are at this point you are experiencing a few things worth noting; - employees are definitely seeing the results of the program, - management is seeing improved employee satisfaction in the workplace, - realization that numbers going down is always a good thing for goal achievement which is a good indicator for management. These points can be measured. 

If your processes have been showing below zero incidents for the current period of goals, you may want to discuss this with the management team. Could be a good idea to take a step back and take a serious look at the work community. Is there anything going on that could be driving the numbers "underground"? Example, if third party satisfaction surveys and audits are positive, then you may want to redefine your measurement parameters to include a strategy for "Near misses or Close Calls" 

Make sure that you are doing whatever it takes to be proactive. Can be very difficult to explain to employees and management why the trend is now going the wrong way and what is being done to address the issue. 

Is your root cause analysis approach as good as it can be? All of you are doing formal benchmarking. If not I suggest you get on board. Your root cause analysis process could be totally ineffective. Benchmark with the best companies in your business to see what they are using then investigate the posibiity of makin a change or getting re-training for effectiveness. 

I am not a sales-person but I can tell you that more and more businesses worldwide are using a product called Tap Root which, from my point of view, is the most effective root cause analysis tool available. 

Feel free to contact me if you have questions, but continue to be focused and diligent with the "below zero" results.

Nicchia Schutt-Toleman

Incident Investigation Lead

I always believe that what worries the workers should scare the heck out of management. This is a great example of a reporting system where everyone is listening. Communication and paying attention to the workforce is the most important step towards a healthy safety culture.

Luke Sullivan

Safety, Environment, Risk & Sustainability

Very interesting article. I'm pleased there is some honest discussion about how you can make your stats work for you in a more practical way. The challenge will always be the human condition – that which makes us self-aware sentient beings, introspective, searching for meaning to our lives and propelling our analysis of the existential...and the capacity to be complete idiots. We have been hardwired for random acts of stupidity. People get it wrong, make mistakes - that's what makes us human. Zero harm is a myth, but making people believe it's possible defines our profession.


Safety Management Consultant at James Loud Consulting


Nice post but I do wish we wouldn't define our profession based on a myth and instead help define it as a management priority similar to other importasnt organizational priorities. Safety is much more than a worker behavior issue and our focus on the zero myth has a number of well documented negative (unintended) consequences.

Top Contributor

Thanks for the discussion. I agree with the notion of Zero Harm being a myth. It is statistically improbable for more than a short period of time. And measuring toward that goal can be demotivating. Instead, lets choose other numbers that can consistently improve as well as make a difference.

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