Wings on safety: WHEN ZERO IS EVERYTHING

May 12, 2010
Written by Parker and Kapuscinski
Can we have zero accidents? Twelve years ago, Transport Canada declared its intention to pursue a “zero” aircraft accident rate when it published “Challenge 98.” No doubt many people in the aviation industry rolled their eyes at the notion of zero; likely many still do. So was Transport Canada’s planned pursuit delusionary or visionary?

To answer this question, we must first start by asking ourselves “are all accidents preventable?” A number of years ago, the people at Petroleum Helicopters International (PHI) asked themselves just that. They looked at their accident history and they determined that all the contributors, links or dominos that led to each accident, were preventable. Faced with this somewhat frightening revelation, PHI questioned, “If they are all preventable, why don’t we prevent them?” This bold new approach became not just a staid corporate vision statement, but rather the way they did business. Over the following years they went from being a safety leader in their field to improving their already enviable record. Still, improving isn’t zero.

To imagine zero, we may need to travel back in time. Back to the beginnings of commercial aviation and some of the pioneers that brought us to the place we are today. Dr. Jerome Lederer, or Jerry, as he liked to be called, worked for the first commercial air service in North America, the U.S. Air Mail, in the 1920s at a time when the annual death rate for pilots was 1 in 5. A highly intelligent and practical individual, he helped that company reduce its accident rate without putting it out of business. 

When Jerry was in his 90s, during a discussion on the possibility of zero, he posed this question: “If you had asked the pilots in the U.S. Air Mail whether they believed that in less than 70 years we could have the commercial aviation accident rate we currently have, do you think they would have believed it possible?” He followed that question up with an observation. He said that throughout his career he had heard the same arguments in every decade: “this is the best we can do, we have come as far as we can.” In the ’20s, Jerry was able to envision our present, and in the ’90s, he could see our future.
 
Most of us still balk at the concept of absolute zero. To prove that zero is impossible we point to rare single-cause uncontrollable scenarios. For example, how can we expect to prevent a meteor from striking an aircraft; with our current technology there is nothing to keep that from occurring. We use this type of event to support our belief in the futility of any quest for zero. However, what happens if we do not include these uncontrollable scenarios? If we consider only those accidents with multiple causes, which virtually all accidents in our complex system have, then we must redefine the statement of zero to “zero preventable accidents.”

How do we go from today towards this future of “zero?” In Canada, legislation has prompted a number of organizations to give this serious thought. Last year, Conair Group Inc., a leader in safety for a number of decades, launched “Target Zero” as the focus of its continuing internal safety program. This initiative was viewed by many as being far too ambitious. Conair suspected that any reference to zero would open them to potential detractors, both internally and externally. To ensure long-term success, it planned its campaign to address directly the likelihood of setbacks. Within weeks of the official launch of “Target Zero,” the company experienced some damage/injury events that naysayers may have pointed to as proof that “zero preventable accidents” is not achievable. If Conair had lacked focus and leadership, that series of events could have derailed its program. Instead, Conair’s “Target Zero” is still on track, and employees within the organization believe it will work because they understand they are in this for the long haul.

We can learn many lessons from the efforts of PHI and Conair.  Perhaps the most valuable is that we cannot expect instantaneous success. All aviators know they must make course corrections to stay on track. Our journey to “Target Zero” will need course corrections, too.

 “Zero Preventable Accidents” is the unifying vision at the core of Safety Management Systems for long-term effectiveness. In our quest we must get past our seemingly logical objections and focus on the achievability of a “zero preventable accidents” culture. This isn’t just semantics; with work and by redirecting our focus now, we can make Transport Canada’s vision of “zero” mean everything.


Elaine Parker and Brendan Kapuscinski have extensive experience, derived from decades of practical application in the areas of safety, compliance, flight operations, security and emergency planning. Their company, Beyond Risk Management Ltd., was founded to help organizations promote a safety culture by “Professionalism and Confidence Through Training.”

This information is intended to increase overall safety awareness and is not a substitute for compliance with regulatory guidelines. We welcome your feedback and submissions at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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