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To substitute for the quiz, please provide a half page covering the following in relation to the article:-what is the Zero Paradox-what did the data reveal?-what industries were examined?-what is your personal opinion of the author’s position on the topic. Keep in mind the author provides a number of different thought provoking statements.

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Policy and Practice in Health and Safety
ISSN: 1477-3996 (Print) 1477-4003 (Online) Journal homepage:
UK construction safety: a zero paradox?
Fred Sherratt & Andrew R. J. Dainty
To cite this article: Fred Sherratt & Andrew R. J. Dainty (2017) UK construction
safety: a zero paradox?, Policy and Practice in Health and Safety, 15:2, 108-116, DOI:
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Published online: 22 Mar 2017.
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VOL. 15, NO. 2, 108–116
UK construction safety: a zero paradox?
Fred Sherratta and Andrew R. J. Daintyb
Department of Engineering and the Built Environment, Anglia Ruskin University, Chelmsford, UK; bSchool of Civil and
Building Engineering, Loughborough University, Loughborough, UK
The zero accident mantra has become embedded within the safety discourse of
large UK construction organisations, but the extent to which zero-focused
approaches yield reductions in accident frequency is yet to be empirically investigated. By way of an evidence-based critique, we examine the relationship between
major accidents and zero approaches by drawing on Health and Safety Executive
accident data over a 4 year period, together with an analysis of major contractors’
safety approaches. This reveals that working on a project subject to a zero safety
policy or programme actually appears to slightly increase the likelihood of having a
serious life-changing accident or fatality; a possible ‘zero paradox’. Although these
findings should be treated with caution, they suggest that the apparent trend
towards abandoning zero amongst some large organisations is well-founded. As
such, if zero policies stymie learning whilst failing to reduce accidents, the need for
a countervailing discourse is clear.
Received 8 January 2017
Accepted 8 March 2017
Construction industry;
safety; UK; zero paradox;
Zero has become the biggest number in safety (Sherratt, 2014). It is becoming more prominent in academia, where it has found both critics, uncomfortable with the theoretical, philosophical and discursive
consequences of its emergence (cf. Dekker, 2014; Dekker, Long, & Wybo, 2016; Hollnagel, 2014; Long,
2012; Sherratt, 2014), and champions, who stress the differences between targets and visions
(cf. Zwetsloot, Aaltonen, Wybo, Saari, & Kines, 2013, Zwetsloot, Kines, Wybo, Ruotsala, & Drupsteen,
2017) and align it to other, more practical and tangible, developments in safety management with clear
beneficial consequences (cf. Young, 2014). Zero has permeated the safety management systems of many
different organizations within petrochemical, manufacturing and engineering industries. Indeed, it has
seemingly become an inherent part of the way safety is managed and delivered in practice; as Long (2012,
p. 11) points out, such organizations no longer employ Safety Managers but applications are now sought
for ‘Zero Harm Advisors’, potentially a consequence of the growing influence of marketing and public
relations in safety management (Sherratt, 2016a).
Yet it is perhaps not the labelling of Zero, or its philosophical implications or semantic nuances that
really matter. It could even be argued that what academics and corporate leaders think Zero means does
not really matter very much either. What actually matters is the extent to which Zero tangibly influences
managerial, administrative or operative safety practices that, in turn, affect safety outcomes. Indeed, the
lack of an evidenced-based evaluation of Zero is surprising given the amount of interest in its emergence
CONTACT Fred Sherratt
[email protected]
ß 2017 Institution of Occupational Safety and Health
Anglia Ruskin University, Bishop Hall Lane, Chelmsford CM1 1SQ, UK
in recent years as Zwetsloot et al. (2017, p. 264) argue in their defence of the Zero Harm Vision that there
has been a lack of ‘ … empirical research published in peer reviewed journals’ from those who critique
Zero, that there is no ‘ … strong scientific case’ that Zero has unintended consequences or negative effects
on practice. This paper seeks to redress this by presenting a case study of a single hazardous sector;
the UK construction industry. Specifically, we critically examine the relationship between the
mobilization of Zero within organizational safety management and the actual numbers of potentially lifechanging incidents that occurred on those organizations’ construction sites over a 4-year period. Whilst
no claim is made to causality, analysis of this data reveals a potential Zero paradox: statistically, you are
marginally more likely to have major/specified accident working on a large construction site operated by a
company that has adopted Zero within their health and safety strategy, than if you are working on a site
without it.
The UK construction industry and zero
It is often suggested that construction is not like any other industry in terms of health and safety management, in part because of the inherent hazards and risks associated with construction work itself, yet consideration should also be given to the wider way construction work is structured, and the pressures this
also brings to safety management on sites.
A hazardous workplace
On construction sites, the work environment is constantly changing and growing as work progresses. This
in turn inevitably creates the need for workers to be in close proximity to excavations, leading edges and
heights, as foundations, walls and roofs are constructed. This creates a wide variety of different workplace
hazards, which are also in constant development as the next work within the project begins. In order to
carry out such work, heavy and potentially dangerous plant, machinery and equipment are in constant
use, whilst toxic materials and chemicals are also frequently used. Construction sites present an everchanging work space, where hazards are an inevitable part of the process, and their careful and continuous
management within the site context is therefore an essential task (Sherratt, 2016b).
Building in unsafety
In addition to the hazards found on the site itself, it has also been argued that the very way the industry
operates is the fundamental cause of its poor safety record (Cipolla, Sheahan, Biggs, & Dingsdag, 2006).
The way work is awarded to construction companies through competitive tendering processes can mean a
focus on the direct cost of the labour, plant and materials for construction rather than other project considerations, such as safety (Lingard & Rowlinson, 2005). Due in part to the project-based nature of the
work, there is also a reliance on subcontracting, which often sees long industry supply chains working on
large sites, which also has negative consequences for safety (Manu, Ankrah, Proverbs, & Suresh, 2010).
The same tendering processes are also used to establish industry supply chains, and so the pressures on
profit are squeezed tighter and tighter along them, reducing the money available for safety management
and training (Lingard & Rowlinson, 2005) within supply chain organizations, and it is often the smaller
contractors who are most vulnerable to poor safety practices (Donaghy, 2009), as they strive to win work
within such constrictive financial environments.
Such a fragmented industry structure has in turn developed a fragmented workforce that is transient
and temporary, with little responsibility for or even acceptance of safety management in practice
(Donaghy, 2009; Seymour & Fellows, 2002). This workforce is also incentivized by bonus and payment
schemes that encourage speed and risk taking behaviours (Fellows, Langford, Newcombe, & Urry, 2002),
paid for the volume of work they produce, rather than whether they produce it safely. The pressures of
time and cost can be seen to readily cascade throughout the industry, as it seeks to operate as quickly and
cheaply as possible (Sherratt, 2016b) to meet the constant demand for production (Health and Safety
Executive, 2009; Lingard & Rowlinson, 2005). Indeed, one quarter of the experts consulted for the
Donaghy Report (2009) to UK Government, titled ‘One Death is Too Many’, felt that the way the industry
is set up and work is procured has created an ethos that actively encourages safety accidents and
The cost of construction safety
The challenges of managing such complexities effectively are sadly reflected in the human cost of construction work; it has been estimated that around 60,000 people die on construction sites worldwide each
year (Smallwood & Lingard, 2009). Seen in this context, the UK construction industry is one of the safest
in the world. Compared to International Labour Organisation estimates from 2008, where construction
worker fatality rates ranged from 3.3 to 10.6 deaths per 100,000 workers within certain industrialized
countries, the UK rate was only 1.62 per 100,000 workers in 2016 (Health and Safety Executive, 2016) and
there is an ongoing quest amongst large construction contractors operating in the UK to improve this
even further. To this end, and reflecting wider safety management thinking, many large contractors have
enthusiastically adopted Zero into their UK site safety management programmes, embedding its rhetoric
in their health and safety policies and strategies.
Construction safety and zero
Zero has been mobilized in a variety of ways within the construction industry, for some ‘Beyond Zero’ is
specifically positioned as a ‘visionary journey’, adopted as a principle of organizational management and
leadership rather than a specific goal, for others ‘Zero Harm’ is a specific target, with zero fatalities, zero
permanent disabling injuries and zero accidents and injuries. In her research on Zero specifically within
this context, Sherratt (2014) found that corporate programmes often position Zero as a tangible goal, a
firm ‘future perfect’ reality (cf. Pitsis, Clegg, Marosszeky, & Rura-Polley, 2003), which can be counted and
measured through a plethora of targets. Yet this utopia was challenged and even derided by the construction workers themselves, for whom the lived realities of their working lives tells them Zero is, and is likely
to remain, a utopian fantasy, totally incompatible with the current challenges of production that they
face on a daily basis (Sherratt, 2014). Worse still, it might actually stymie the open dialogue and learning
culture widely acknowledged as a hallmark of a progressive safety discourse (Long, 2012).
And this is where Zwetsloot et al. (2017) would suggest that the UK construction industry has got it
wrong; that it has focused on the numbers and not the vision that should inspire real change in practice
and catalyse the process of ‘innovating to zero’ (p. 263). Yet such innovative change cannot readily be
identified in UK construction safety management; there has been a lack of identifiable development in
work practices beyond the simple application of ‘Brand Zero’. As within the wider discourse around Zero
and safety, there have recently been ripples of a sea-change in industry thinking. Indeed, leading construction industry experts have recently suggested that the application of Zero targets to safety is actually
hindering safety management innovation, and has rendered it a bureaucratic activity (Green, 2016), a consideration firmly grounded in the theoretical work of Dekker (2014). Indeed, such a focus on measurement does not seek to challenge and change current practice; rather it aims to operate within the existing
environment, seeking engagement of the workforce without addressing problems of practice, creating a
distraction, a focus on the numbers and continuous improvement, rather than the practices and the people
behind them (Sherratt, 2016b).
Although Zwetsloot et al. (2017, p. 263) are at pains to point out that ‘the exact nature of the beliefs
behind ZAV (Zero Accident Vision) are not very interesting, we are interested in the consequences of
ZAV: the commitments that generate actions and programmes to develop greater safety, often using or
developing innovative means’ (their emphasis), it would seem that for UK construction although such
beliefs may not be ‘interesting’, they hold significant influence to practice. They are precisely what makes
Zero in any form a distraction, because of the allure of its measurement (Hollnagel, 2014, p. 71), creating
a misdirection in efforts to cease all harm rather than the harm that really matters (Dekker et al., 2016,
p. 222), and stifling both learning and reporting in an industry which already struggles to report its accidents and incidents in an honest and timely fashion (Donaghy, 2009; Long & Long, 2012). It also disengages those to whom it should matter most, the construction site workers. Whilst they are happy to
position zero as a vision for the future, rather than a target, they remain firmly derisive of its achievement
within their current working contexts; for them, a construction site with zero accidents is just a castle in
the sky (Sherratt, 2014).
This paper seeks to subject this particular context of Zero to an evidence-based critique and a degree
of empirical scrutiny. It establishes whether large construction organizations operating in the UK that
have adopted Zero have seen improvements over those who have not, whether have they developed
‘greater safety’ in practice, and whether they are able to show any evidence of beginning the process of
‘innovating to Zero’.
Fatal and major/specified accident data for the UK construction industry in the periods 2011–2012 to
2014–2015 were obtained under a Freedom of Information Request (FOI: 201606138) to the UK Health
and Safety Executive (HSE). This data recorded n ¼ 6995 major/specified and fatal incidents as reported
within the UK industry during this time period under UK law. The term ‘specified injury’ replaces the
previous categorization of ‘major injuries’ as noted in the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous
Occurrences Regulations 2013. Such injuries include amputations, reductions in sight, crush injuries, significant burns and any loss of consciousness (HSE, 2016), all of which have the potential to be lifechanging for the injured party. The FOI data also included the name of the reporting company, which in
the case of accidents occurring on large construction sites would most likely be the Principal Contractor,
as defined by the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015.
There are several important caveats to be considered in the use of this FOI data. The data for the
period 2014–2015 is still provisional, and so should be considered as such. There may also be ‘gaps’ in the
data, specifically that fatal injuries are not always reported via the online system from which this FOI data
was generated, but instead ‘ … by the emergency services or others who see it as their responsibility to do
so’. In addition, this dataset does not include incidents reported by the self-employed, due to data protection issues. Due to the nature of subcontracting and the presence of long supply chains on larger projects,
there is also the potential that a contractor could be in charge of a site on which an accident occurred, yet
not be recorded as the reporting company within this dataset. These caveats can, however, all be recognized as only having the potential to reduce the total number of accidents that actually occurred on large
sites under the management of the named Principal Contractors. They are unable to skew the data in the
opposite direction and suggest that more accidents of the noted severity occurred on large sites than did
in reality. Therefore, despite such issues of validity within the dataset, it can still be used to explore the
possible consequences of zero in practice.
The Top 20 contractors working in the UK by turnover were identified through Building Magazine’s
‘Top 150 contractors and housebuilder – Ranked by Turnover’ [20 July 2016]. Data from the period 2014/
2015 was used, to correlate with the accident data. The turnover of the UK construction industry in 2015
was £135.1bn, and the turnover of these Top 20 contractors combined was £52.5bn (Office of National
Statistics, 2015), representing over 39% of all UK construction work by value. Although these contractors
number only 20, subcontracting practices means they will have influence on many sub-contractors and
suppliers who work under their safety programmes on the large projects that make up over a third of all
UK construction work by value.
A blended approach of content analysis (Ali, 2006) was used to examine company websites and sustainability reports to determine each contractor’s approach to zero and safety. This established whether they
had an explicit zero safety policy or programme, for example ‘Target Zero’ or ‘Zero Harm’, or made reference to zero-oriented metrics within their health and safety reporting. Historic reports were also examined, to determine the date Zero first appeared within each contractor’s approach to health and safety
management. The decision of whether a contractor exhibited the traits of a zero accident policy was made
independently by both authors in order to corroborate their approach.
Within the accident data a search was carried out for each Top 20 contractor by name, including their
operation as part of any joint-venture projects. The numbers of fatal and specified/major injuries each
contractor reported in the period 2011–2012 to 2014–2015 was then correlated with their approach to
Zero safety.1
Analysis of the Top 20 company data found that 9 had an explicit Zero policy in place. Six of these companies were operating a safety programme referencing zero, whilst the other three included clear statements around zero, for example that zero was either a target within their wider programme, or specifically
referenced ‘incident and injury free’.
When this data is correlated with the FOI accident data for the period 2011/12–2014/15, the following
is initially revealed:
There were four fatal accidents for companies with zero safety.
There were zero fatal accidents for companies without zero safety.
Furthermore, with regard to major/specified injuries a similar pattern emerges from the data within the
period 2011/2012–2014/2015:
There were 214 major/specified injuries for companies with zero safety.
There were 135 major/specified injuries for companies without zero safety.
Again, and notwithstanding the deficiencies in the dataset outlined above, this does not demonstrate
the realization of the most tangible aspiration of zero in practice. However, these statistics do not reflect
the variations in volume of work carried out by these companies, which can be most readily ascertained
through their published turnover. The UK turnover of these 9 zero safety companies in 2015 was £29.1bn,
representing nearly a quarter (22%) of all UK construction work. The turnover of the 11 companies operating without zero safety was £23.4bn [a difference of £5.7bn (4% of turnover) between the two groups].
Although turnover is not the usual metric employed in a …
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