Is a Goal of Zero Accidents Realistic?

By Mike Bebon

Mike Bebon

Mike Bebon

This is a question that comes up often when I talk with people about safety—including a lively discussion during our Jan. 24 "Coffee & Conversation" gathering—with many expressing skepticism that zero is even possible and a feeling that it is an unrealistic expectation. I agree when we're talking about accidents. From Human Performance Improvement (HPI) training, we know that humans make about five errors per hour on average. So, with 3,000 or so people working on site, we are collectively making more than 100,000 errors per day. That many errors, coupled with the nature of the complex and often hazardous work many of us do, logically makes a "zero accidents" outcome unlikely and probably one we can't realistically achieve. That said, we should, of course, work constantly to eliminate accidents, but not feel defeated if they occur. So, if we think that zero accidents is not achievable, what then should our goal be? How many accidents are OK? Not an easy question.

My answer is that our primary safety focus should be on preventing injuries. The answer to the question of whether we should have a goal of more than zero injuries raises the moral question of how many people is it OK to hurt? I hope we all agree there is no acceptable number above zero. I firmly believe that we can achieve zero injuries even as we experience accidents. And I passionately believe "Zero Injuries" must be our goal.


Morally, there is just no other option.

To get there, we need to constantly put as many barriers as we can between ourselves and the accidents and incidents that can cause us harm. Easier said than done, I know—but possible. We begin by doing a thorough job on work planning to ensure we identify all of the hazards associated with the work, then put in place engineered controls to eliminate them when possible, make sure we are trained to recognize hazards in the field and perform work safely in the presence of those hazards, and confirm we are equipped with the right tools and personal protective equipment for the job at hand.

To get to zero, we must be laser-focused on the goal every day, thinking about barriers, talking with our colleagues about the jobs before and after we do them so we can learn about the hazards and ways to eliminate or guard against them.

Near-misses must be viewed as gifts, as opportunities to eliminate hazardous conditions or practices revealed in the near-miss before they cause an injury, and we need to share them broadly across the Lab and with other labs through the lessons learned program. Similarly, we need to learn from the experience of others so we can eliminate the hazards they encountered before they hurt our people. (I read somewhere recently that a smart person learns from his or her mistakes but a wise person learns from the mistakes of others.)

We can't get to zero through our individual efforts alone. We need to constantly encourage our colleagues at all levels across the Lab to take their safety very seriously, be personally responsible for ensuring that we work safely, and to pause and speak up if the conditions of the work have changed from what was planned. When someone uses stop-work authority, that needs to be a cause for celebration, and when one worker expresses concern for a co-worker's safety, they need to be thanked for their care and concern every time. This is not where we are right now, but it is where we need to be to reach zero injuries. It will not be easy but, to me, eliminating pain and suffering is worth it. It will require relentless focus on the details, teamwork, and getting outside our personal comfort zones. But we BNLers do amazing things every day.

So, if we adopt this goal of zero injuries and intensely focus on it together, we can get there sooner than we all might expect. I'm in. How about you?

– Mike Bebon
Deputy Director for Operations

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