Thinking Differently About Target Zero


Over the last 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. Do you recall integers from your junior high math class? My daughter was studying the concept and needed some help. From kindergarten to junior high, math numbers range on the positive side of zero. In pre-school for example, numbers were simply 1, 2, 3, etc., up to 10. Later we learned numbers went from 10 to 20, then to 100, then a thousand — you get the picture. Our calculations (adding and subtracting then multiplying and dividing) were all in the ranges just noted above, zero or greater. But, as kids get older and more mature, at least in their thinking of math and numbers, there is a new concept introduced (integers). This is the reality that numbers don’t stop at zero — the number line actually goes past zero, to negative 1, negative 2, negative 1 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 fewer 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, 1 out of 2 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 1 in 2 workers were killed on the job, to a much more sustainable safety program.

Yet, one hundred 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 should starting to slowly 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. Don’t believe me? Well, that is the first place to start!

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 have never 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. Motivational and leadership programs that tap into our workers talents. They provide our workers training and tools that give them more confidence as they walk out the door at night then they had when they walked in that morning.

I believe we are ready to move beyond zero and not only provide a work place of zero at risk acts, but begin to move beyond zero. What do you believe?

Today, many Target Zero posters and value statements include something about “being responsible and accountable for my safety”. That is a great and necessary part of the Target Zero process, but over the last decade it has all too many times been understood by our workers to mean “discipline” for breaking safety rules. While 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?

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 US and Europe and interview the most successful business leaders and politicians of the time asking them 1 question: If you had to sum up success in 1 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!

About Matt’s New Book
I’m honored to share some good news: my latest book, What Utility Safety Leaders Do, is now available: This book (description below) is specially designed for utility leaders. Every supervisor, manager, safety committee member, and utility safety supervisor needs this book!

What Utility Safety Leaders Do: Tips, Tactics, Strategies and Insights for Leaders by Matt Forck, CSP & JLW
Because of the hazards and risks in the utility industry, and the life-changing nature of utility incidents, the industry needs leadership like never before. Utilities are good at rules. We have rules for chocking truck tires, PPE, confined space entry, trenching and shoring and the list goes on and on. But, since no 2 jobs are exactly the same, rules must always be interpreted and applied, only to have conditions change and rules must be re-applied. To that end, safety leadership is the key to long term success — and safety leadership is NOT outlined in our safety manuals. This book provides innovative and tested leadership tips, tactics, strategies and ideas specifically for utilities. We need leaders, because “Nobody gets hurt today.” List Price: $24.95/188 pages.


About Author

Matt Forck, CSP & JLW, keynotes conferences and consults industry on safety's most urgent topics such as: safety awareness, employee engagement and motivation, cultural alignment, accountability, and leadership. To learn more about Matt, book a presentation or download free safety tools, go to

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