“You want if possible—and there is no madder ‘if possible’—to abolish suffering…?”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (par. 225, emphasis in original).
Some, or even many, have started to question the zero accident vision and the safety commitment practices it produces. Our knowledge of what a zero vision is, where it comes from and how it might or might not work has many gaps. In a sense, it is still a ‘black box.’ Little is known about the exact activities and mechanisms that lie underneath the reductions in harm that committed companies have witnessed, and little research has been conducted into this. Effectiveness of implementing the vision is not uniform. Negative consequences have been noted, such as excessive quantification and bureaucratization of safety, the suppression of incident and injury data, and the unfocused spending of investigative resources and improvement initiatives. And though often considered a worthy ethical commitment, most accident theories, e.g. normal accident theory, man-made disaster theory and drift theories do not believe that a zero vision—a world without accidents—is actually achievable.
Let’s take a brief look here at the very cultural-historical basis of what amounts to not just an idea, but an ‘archetype’ in Western thinking. It locates the commitment to a zero vision inside what is known as the salvation narrative—the notion that a world without suffering is not only desirable but achievable, and that efforts expended toward that goal are morally right and inherently laudable¹. This contrasts with other cultural-historical traditions which see suffering as inevitable. The aim of considering these foundations for the zero vision is to understand that the zero vision is but one option. Even if many in the West consider it to be morally self-evident and unquestionable (the kind of persuasion that turns some into ‘zero-zealots’), such a consideration can show that the commitment has become enabled during millennia in which a particular narrative of suffering took hold in the West. Whether this makes a zero vision right or wrong is not the point (and probably beyond any individual’s judgment). But it shows the zero vision as historically and culturally dependent—the product of social constructions that have gradually established the zero vision as a legitimate reading of suffering and salvation today. Other readings are possible too, which carry different, and possibly more humane, implications for organizational or managerial commitments.
The Western salvation narrative
Sociologist Max Weber noted that salvation or relief from suffering has been a central pursuit of humankind for millennia, which “is still present and pervades contemporary organization and management…though today it is rarely referred to in religious terms, nor typically called salvation”. The idea that a world without suffering is not only desirable but achievable is deeply embedded in Western thinking about ethics, human choice and action. Most cultures evolved allegories about their own birth. Many start with human beings living in close intimacy with the divine. In this blissful initial state, there is no ontological divide, there is complete harmony with nature and each other—and no suffering. Storytellers may have invoked these images to reassure listeners that life was not meant to be so painful, so separated. Then, typically, follows a separation. The allegory of Adam and Eve who inhabit the Garden of Eden (placed second among more than twenty creation stories that can be found in the Judeo-Christian bible, but likely the oldest one, from around 1000–900 BCE) follows this script. But it does so with a major distinction from similar contemporary accounts (e.g. the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh). The Judeo-Christian account places moral responsibility for that separation (and humanity’s subsequent introduction to suffering) on the human; on a human rule violation.
Through historical events that span millennia and shaped the societies we inhabit today, this has had a profound effect on how the West reads the connection between human choice, commitment, compliance and suffering. Important writers along the way such as Augustine, Luther and Calvin contributed to this characterization. Augustine, for example, writing in the early fifth century BCE, explained that:
…when an evil choice happens in any being, then what happens is dependent on the will of that being; the failure is voluntary, not necessary, and the punishment that follows is just (Yu, 2006, p. 129).
Suffering, in this reading, is caused by bad human choices; it is the just punishment that follows on such choices. Suffering is not inevitable, it just depends on ‘voluntary’ rational human choice. The other side, though, much advertised in the Protestant ethic (see below), is that suffering can be relieved by good choices, and by hard work. A return to Eden may be difficult, but a world without suffering is a proper aspiration, as it hinges in large part on our own efforts.
Weber sees clear links between such beliefs about suffering, salvation and organizational practices that reverberate even in our own time. Current managerial and organizational practices have grown, even if thoroughly secularized, out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, through the Protestant ethic. Weber coined the term ‘Protestant ethic’ in 1904. It is the view that a person’s duty is to achieve success through hard work, commitment, diligence, engagement and thrift, and that such success is a sign of salvation. Around the time of Weber’s work (late 19th – early 20th century), a strong work ethic and subsequent success were seen as signs of salvation; as a relief from suffering. It fulfilled the Western salvation narrative through a secular paradigm of individualism, rational choice and consequentialism. That is, individual workers were responsible for the creation of their own salvation; their own choices determined their success at this; and their actions got measured by the consequences, the outcome.
How the zero vision might contribute to new kinds of suffering
And that paradigm is back—after a century of growing workplace democratization, increased regulation, organized labor and employer accountability. Gray (2009) argues that a fundamental reversal is already visible in health and safety. He calls it a neo-liberal trend towards “responsibilization” and shows how workers are assigned ever more responsibility for their own safety at work. The resurgence of behavioral safety over the past two decades has coincided with the neo-liberal (or in North America: neo-conservative) turn in governance. Workers are held accountable as individual moral, rational actors: two thirds of all workplace safety citations in Gray’s study were directed at workers or immediate supervisors, not employers. Workers are “instructed to become prudent subjects who must ‘practice legal responsibility’” (p. 327). Typical prescriptions are for workers to protect their own safety health, follow safety instructions and training, and use protective equipment. This while error-producing conditions related to production pressures, organizational goal conflicts, shifts and schedules, ergonomic issues, or lack of prevention-through-design might get overlooked.
Workers’ individual choices, then, are seen as responsible for safety, or the lack of it. “The failure to practise individual responsibility in the face of workplace dangers,” Gray concludes, “is often used to explain why workers who perform unsafe jobs become injured” (p. 330). To the extent that Gray’s observations are representative, they embody our contemporary version of the Protestant ethic, and, by extension, the Western salvation narrative. Suffering is caused by human choice; but good choices and hard work can provide relief from suffering. Thus, achieving a zero vision (and avoiding suffering) hinges once again largely on the Protestant ethic (by any other name). A ‘zero vision,’ such as it is, is organized around the eradication of the causes of suffering (bad human choices, bad humans).
The problem is, it might contribute to new forms of suffering. Consider the following two examples:
- In a food warehouse 150 workers load and unload trucks, lift boxes, drive fork trucks, and move pallets. Each month that no one reports an injury, all workers receive prizes, such as $50 gift certificates. If someone reports an injury, no prizes are given that month. Management then added a new element to this “safety incentive” program: if a worker reported an injury, not only would co-workers forego monthly prizes but the injured worker had to wear a fluorescent orange vest for a week. The vest identified the worker as a safety problem, and alerted co-workers: he/she lost you your prizes (Frederick & Lessin, 2000). This is like making people wear a ‘Dunce cap,’ as was practiced in education with slow-learning pupils through the early 1900’s.
- A Louisiana man is in prison for lying about worker injuries at a local power utility, which allowed his company to collect $2,5 million in safety bonuses. The 55-year old, who was safety manager for a construction contractor, was sentenced to 6,5 years prison followed by two years of supervised release. He was convicted of not reporting injuries at two different plants in Tennessee and Alabama between 2004 and 2006. At his federal trial, jurors heard evidence of more than 80 injuries that were not promptly recorded, including broken bones, torn ligaments, hernias, lacerations and injuries to shoulders, backs and knees. The construction contractor paid back double the bonuses (Anon., 2013).
In these examples, the organizations’ commitment to zero degraded into bullying and into fraud, respectively. In the first example, as patient safety advocate Lucien Leape would put it, we have “come to view an error as a failure of character—you weren’t careful enough, you didn’t try hard enough.”. The suffering inflicted in that example is, in a sense, a blaming and mocking of the victim. It also tends to create adversarial workplace relationships and eroded trust. A zero vision, in other words, enacted as a late modern form of the Protestant ethic (where workers’ own moral choices are seen as responsible for their avoidance or creation of suffering) can paradoxically contribute to new forms of suffering.
In the second example, workers’ suffering was compounded by unacknowledged and untreated injuries, and by sustaining underlying workplace conditions that could create additional harm. As the Head of the US Occupational Safety and Health Authority commented,
This case shows the destructive consequences that purely rate-based incentive programs can have. Far from promoting safety, the bonus led to a systematic effort to conceal injures. Injured workers were denied or delayed medical treatment. Underlying workplace safety issues went unaddressed (ISHN, 2013, p. 1).
A zero vision enacted through an organizational/contractual incentive system in the second example shows how the archetypical promise of a world without suffering can simultaneously produce suffering and hide it from view. Similar (though much less extreme) cases, or what they stand for, can be found (GAO, 2012).
Alternative visions of suffering
The idea that a world without suffering is the norm from which we once ‘fell’, and that such a world is once again achievable or at least morally laudable to strive for (e.g. through a zero vision) is not shared in equal measure by other ontologies. Buddhism, for example, is acutely concerned with the relief of suffering. It is, however, not equally committed to seeing suffering as the result of human choice, and is ready to acknowledge that suffering is inevitable and universal. Rather than relieving suffering by trying to “abolish” it (as Nietzsche mocked the Judeo-Christian commitment), Buddhism might call for the relief of suffering by compassion or, literally, ‘suffering with’:
The Buddha once comforted a suffering mother who had lost her child, by asking her to find a mustard seed from a family that had not suffered from losing a relative. The mother, who failed to find such a family, realized the universality and inevitability of suffering. She eventually became one of the Buddha’s foremost disciples, filled with compassion in helping others (Yu, 2006, p. 151).
This is of course but one alternative. And these alternatives are not neatly parceled geographically. Western management practices have spread with colonization and then globalization, even as Eastern traditions have seeped into Western-style management and organization. This presents great opportunities. The image of suffering above, and its call to compassion, can for example be found in recent Western literature on ‘second victims.’ These are workers involved in an incident that (potentially) harmed or killed others, and for which they feel guilty and responsible. Their suffering has been likened to post-traumatic stress, a disorder which is currently acknowledged to be incurable—but manageable with proper intervention. In other words, it is the sort of suffering that is inevitable, but for which relief can be brought. Programs for critical incident and stress management, for example, try to do exactly that by prescribing repertoires of psychological first aid, debriefings, and follow-ups. Policies and protocols for this are well-tested and developed by now, though they lack implementation in many fields partly because of the preoccupation with attempting to abolish the causes of suffering, rather than alleviating its effects.
What this might inspire us to consider, is that a zero vision does not necessarily have to translate into an eradication of the incidents that cause suffering. It can also translate into a commitment to alleviate the suffering that remains inevitable; the unrelenting residue of harm that remains even after we have implemented all safety measures we know we should. Such suffering should be addressed by showing compassion and support. This will produce rather different (perhaps more humane) commitment practices—concentrated on seeing the human behind the worker, on disclosure and forgiveness, on consolation, reassurance, restoration and enhancing individual people’s resilience. It is a zero vision directed not at the causes of suffering, but at its effects. Making those effects go away, or alleviating them by offering solidarity, humanity, integrity and collegiality, is still within our power. It is still our choice. That, indeed, is a moral choice toward a zero vision that is worth considering seriously.
Note 1: The Western salvation narrative is, of course, a product of Judeo-Christian thinking—the tradition that gave the West (even if largely secularized today) much of its ethical code. This paper categorically does not wish to impugn the truth or validity that people might read into this tradition, nor the faith which impels them to act morally. It attempts a weak and distant form of exegesis, the time-honored critical explanation and interpretation of texts that stem from that, and alternative, traditions.
Anon. (2013, 12 April). Jail for safety manager for lying about injuries. Washington Examiner. Retrieved from http://washingtonexaminer.com/article/feed/2088502
Frederick, J., & Lessin, N. (2000). The rise of behavioural-based safety programmes. Multinational Monitor, 21, 1-7.
GAO. (2012). Workplace safety and health: Better OSHA guidance needed on safety incentive programs (Report to Congressional Requesters). Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office.
Gray, G. C. (2009). The responsibilization strategy of health and safety. British Journal of Criminology, 49, 326-342.
ISHN. (2013, 16 April 2013). Safety manager sent to prison for lying about workplace injuries. ISHN Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.ishn.com/articles/95631-safety-manager-sent-to-prison-for-lying-about-workplace-injuries
Yu, X. (2006). Understanding suffering from Buddhist and Christian perspectives. Christian Study Centre on Chinese Religion and Culture, 7(1-2), 127-152.