An investigation into the effectiveness of “Journey to Zero” programs

Setting goals and measuring performance – an investigation into the effectiveness of “Journey to Zero” programs

By Karoly Ban MateiFirst published here

imageDisclaimer: To avoid any potential disclosure of private information the names of the organizations in the study have been changed and their statistical data altered with a multiplier; however the ratios have been maintained.

I have collected the data for organization A with their consent. To say thank you, I have sent them a copy of the report. To my surprise, none of the senior managers did acknowledge receiving it or asked any questions about the results or methodology.

Executive Summary

The goal-setting theory is considered one of the most important management theories, and this essay discusses if setting a goal of zero injuries has produced the expected results.

Journey to Zero (JT0) programs have been promoted and pushed down the supply chain, and, for this reason, the study compares the industry as a whole, one of its major players and a smaller supplier down the supply chain that performs work for the major player.

The most common finding across the study subjects is that, at a first sight, their safety record constantly improved, a fact generally attributable to JT0 programs. However, this data is generally self-reported and the criteria for reporting are set by the organizations themselves, making the validity of the data questionable. For all other industries, a direct correlation between the number of recordable injuries and fatalities exists, with the notable exception of O&G.  Since fatality rates are substantially more reliable and using the ratio between recordable injuries and fatalities common to other industries, as well as other available data, it has been concluded that, indeed, the self-reported data is inaccurate. All subjects have under-reported injuries to show an improved safety record.

In summary, it has been shown that JT0 programs are conducive to hiding or ignoring recordable injuries, and the existence of such a program is not correlated to an improved safety record. Additionally, by hiding and ignoring injuries, JT0’s are detrimental to continuous learning. A lack of awareness about past their own incident history leads to unrealistic goals.

The O&G industry should abandon JT0 programs and slogans (for more about slogans, please see my article about them here: ) and focus on leading indicators and continuous learning. The regulatory body should be reframed, to standardize reporting and incentivize organizations to continuously improve.

While this study focused on the O&G industry and the organizations gravitating around this industry, some findings could be generic to all industries and further study is recommended.

Project Statement

Project topic

From its early inception, the oil and gas (O&G) industry in North America had a poor reputation for health safety and environment, but it went unaddressed for a long time (Total Safety, 2019). With the advent of high volume hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling, steam-assisted gravitational drainage and surface exploitation of oil sands, its importance in the US and Canadian economy grew dramatically, and its health and safety record started to get attention.

To improve its image and record, the O&G employers in Canada organized themselves in the Oil Sands Safety Association, OSSA (Energy Safety Canada as of 2018), and started to promote occupational health and safety training and programs. One of the most important developments was Organization B Energy’s “Journey to Zero” a program that all OSSA participants embraced under different names, and which stated that all accidents are preventable. Organizations working in the oil sands had to embrace this philosophy in order to work in the O&G industry.

This seemed to produce results as their injury rate continuously declined in the last 10 years (BLS, 2014; Halliburton, 2019; Organization B,2019), to a level lower than the construction industry. However, according to Witter et al (2015) and BLS (2014), the industry fatality rate is 2.5 times higher than the construction industry and 7 times higher than the general industry.

Organization A, due to its ties with the O&G sector, and a shared belief system developed through years-long cooperation with the major players in the industry, embraced this program under the name “Target Zero” and, according to Organization A’s internal injury statistics, its record also seemed to improve.

Purpose of the research

Under the assumption that a goal is a target we hope to reach before too long (Senge et al, 1994), the purpose of the research is to analyze if setting a zero injuries goal is a good leadership practice and if this is conducive to reducing the number and severity of workplace injuries. Based on these findings, the research will provide recommendations for the adoption, rejection or improvement of zero injury programs.

Research methodology

Though originally as a comparative analysis of the oil and gas (O&G) industry and Organization A approach to the JT0 programs, as common with the holistic approach the research shifted to a larger scope (Yin, 2014). The research method is a multiple case study, including the industry, Organization B and Organization A.

Organization B, a large O&G player in Canada, frequently awards work to Organization A, so including Organization B in the study increases the number of cases and supports the case for literal replication (Yin, 2014).

Additionally, the relationships between the industry and a major player (Organization B) and the larger player and Organization A, further supports literal replication with predictable similar results (Yin, 2014), and shows how the JT0 programs, slogans and ideology trickled down the supply chain.

It has been considered that the three replications and the other examples provided in the literature review are sufficient to make the case since the case study is not excessively complex (Yin, 2014) and does not require a precise quantification of the relationships.

Finally, a multi-case study based on literal replication has been selected because, as seen in the literature review, it seems that in recent times researchers and practitioners seem to agree (Yin, 2014) that zero injury programs are not producing the expected results (Quilley, 2018).  The case study intends to verify this assumption and uncover why such an ethically positive goal repeatedly and constantly resulted in failure.

Data collection

Each case (Industry, Organization B, Organization A) will be presented separately (Yin, 2014); the tiered approach reveals an interesting aspect: despite these programs being pushed from the top of the supply chain down, data availability, quality and visibility is scarce at the top (industry) and increases towards the bottom (Organization A).

All data used in the case study is secondary data, to minimize the time and resources needed for completion (Vartanian, 2011, cited by Saunders, Lewis & Tornhill, 2016). 

Most case data is multiple source longitudinal data available through industry and government statistics, while a limited amount of text data has been collected and compiled from internal databases and newspapers (Saunders, Lewis & Tornhill, 2016).

Industry data:

As the number of players in the Canadian O&G market is relatively small and dominated by US and international shareholders (Shrivastastava & Stefanick, 2015), the secondary quantitative data (compiled) for the O&G industry has been sourced from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, 2017), which is available online. Additional data has been sourced from ISNetWorld (2019a and 2019b), a major statistics and qualification portal used by O&G companies.

Organization B data:

Secondary quantitative (compiled) data for Organization B Energy has been obtained from the following sources:

  • Information self-published by Organization B. 
  • Alberta Labor website (Alberta Labor, 2019) – longitudinal data on the largest Workers Compensation Board (WCB) account Organization B Energy maintained in Alberta.
  • Various text data from 2013-2019 local publications.
Organization A data:

Alberta Labor website (Alberta Labor, 2019) – secondary data on the two Workers Compensation Board (WCB) Accounts Organization A maintains in Alberta.

  • WCB account summaries (WCB, 2019).
  • Internal annual injury statistics (compiled data)
  • Third-party audit (Name withheld, 2019).

Literature review

What is Journey to Zero (JT0)

Journey to Zero is an artificial construct, similar in concepts and values with the program with the same name launched by Organization B Energy (Organization B, 2019) and reproduced or adapted by most O&G companies in the US and Canada, that states that all injuries are preventable. Furthermore, contractors working for the O&G companies have to subscribe to this idea and demonstrate a near-perfect safety record to be allowed to bid and win contracts for the O&G companies. The O&G sector has defined safety as the absence of accidents and rates its contractor on lagging indicators. (Barnetson & Foster, 2016). Hughes, Ginnett & Curphy (2015) list zero recordable and lost time injuries as possible organizational goals.

Origins of JT0

It is unclear when the first JT0 program appeared, but Clements (2005) notes that Dollard was discussing the demoralizing effects of zero goals as early as 1939, and more recently Edward Deming analyzed the efficiency of zero-goal practices in his 1986 edition of the Out of the Crisis.

In the O&G industry, JT0 programs appeared in early 2000 and Organization A’s first “Target Zero” branded documents appeared circa 2006. The elevation to prominence of the JT0 programs coincides with the poor O&G health and safety performance coming under public scrutiny. Arguably, at least from this perspective, JT0 programs are an offshoot of the corporate social responsibility, these organizations not willing to appear shunning their moral responsibility towards their internal stakeholders, their employees (Gorny, 2014).

The theory and practice of JT0

The theory

Judging by the reducing rate of injuries reported by the O&G companies and several studies (Hinze & Wilson, 2000), it seems that while not reaching zero injuries the JT0 programs are still conducive to safety performance improvement. 

Marilatt (2015) points out that the proponents of the zero injuries argue that a zero goal is the only ethically justifiable goal, anything different meaning that companies accept injuring workers as the cost of doing business. From this perspective, a JT0 program is not only justifiable but should be embraced as best practice by all organizations (Roughton, Crowley & Firestone, 1999).  In theory, zero injuries seems a great representation for ethical leadership: doing “the best for the greatest number of people”, following the “highest principle of duty” and abiding by the golden rule of doing “what you want others to do to you” (Hughes, Ginnett & Curphy, 2015).

Robert Krzywicki, global practice leader for employee safety at DuPont Sustainable Solutions (EHS Today, 2013), agrees and says that DuPont, a company of more than 60,000 employees and dozens of plants, has been striving for zero injuries for over 200 years and that some plants have achieved zero for extended periods of time.

Halliburton has its own JT0 program and states on its website (2019) that all unplanned events can be prevented and that there are many areas within Halliburton where this is happening now.

And practice…

While Krzywicki states that some of their plants have reached zero, the reality is that the vast majority of their plants have not, even for short periods of time, despite DuPont’s 200 years focus on process improvement, proving that the system is not replicable and zero results are likely a product of chance rather than a system that works (Clemens, 2005). Despite Krzywicki’s claim, OSHA placed the organization in the Severe Violator Enforcement Program after the death of 4 employees at one of their Texas plants (OSHA News Release, July 6 2016).

Halliburton, the largest oilfield service company, despite its success claims, has the highest number of severe injuries in its industry group (Soraghan, 2017).

Organization B Energy, another proponent of the JT0 program (Organization B, 2019), appears in Alberta’s newspapers frequently with employee and contractor fatalities.

  This reality is not only placing a question mark on how success is measured and if zero is achievable, but also sends the message to their contractors that you can have injuries and fatalities and still claim a perfect record if you are creative with your recording.

A major obstacle in determining the success of JT0 programs is the lack of a common industry definition (Diggory, 2017; Simon, 2019). Therefore, each organization is free to define its own programs and success criteria, making any claim that the goal has been reached subjective. Soraghan (2017) points out that until 2015 employers were required to report to OSHA only fatalities and accidents where three or more employees were hospitalized, making most of the workplace injuries opaque to the government and the industry. 

The case of under-reporting

Marilatt (2015), Hollnagel, Wears and Braithwaite (2015) as well as Conklin (2012) concede that a zero goal incentivizes employees and employers to underreporting injury data. The problem is so prevalent that Richard E. Fairfax, OSHA’s Deputy Assistant Secretary (US Department of Labor, 2012), issued a memorandum to its regional administrators and whistleblowers program managers highlighting the extent and methods used by employers to suppress reporting.

The suppression of the reporting is, among others, conditioned by the fact that in the O&G industry the awarding of contracts is tied to the safety performance.  Since past results cannot be changed and performance cannot be improved fast enough to allow the companies to bid, the only way a company can survive is by lying (Johnson, 2012).  Deming (2000), speaking about zero targets, said: “Fear invites wrong figures. Bearers of bad news fare badly. To keep his job, anyone may present to his boss only good news “.

Under-reporting is obvious when comparing the self-reported injury rate, which is lower than the general industry, and the fatality rate, which is substantially higher than the general industry (Soragham, 2017; Witter et al, 2015). This statistic anomaly is in conflict with modern interpretations of Heinrich’s (1931) accident pyramid, which states that for a given company the number of injuries decreases as the severity increases. 

The state of JT0 today

While most O&G companies have policies stating that all injuries are preventable and zero injuries is an achievable target, only 45% of safety professionals and 35 percent of the workforce believe this is realistic (Ivensky, 2016), a view shared also by Sheratt (2014).

Diggory (2017) summarizes the state of JT0 programs considering that (for pipeline industry), zero injuries is rather an abstract concept, more akin to the ”pot of gold at the end of the rainbow”, a desirable but unlikely outcome.  He argues that for zero goals to be achievable, the O&G should be heavily regulated and investigated, similarly to the aviation industry and to openly share all their learning from accident investigations, which is not likely under the North American political climate and the lack of a common framework.  No major O&G company has claimed yet they have reached their target (Ivensky, 2016).


According to Herzberg’s two-factor theory, workplace safety is a hygiene factor and therefore a sine qua non for employee satisfaction and retention (Noe et al, 2017); Maslow considers security needs among basal needs, just above physiological needs, that if not satisfied would impede the employees attempting to satisfy higher-level needs that are desired and beneficial for the employer (Hughes, Ginnett & Curphy 2015).  As such, it comes as no surprise that employers have a vested interest to promote and aspire to an injury-free workplace.


While fatality rates for the O&G industry are certainly high, Wirfs-Brock (2014), Mason et al (2015) and others make the argument that the fatality rate is going down, despite the number of employees increasing during the boom periods. Though that is mathematically true, the variation is insignificant (BLS, 2017). What is lost is that when superimposing the fatality graph (BLS, 2019) and the oil price fluctuation graph (Macrotrends, 2019) we notice that the “best safety record” matches almost perfectly the periods of low oil prices, when employment in the industry decreased dramatically.

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This suggests the reduced fatality rate has nothing to do with the JT0 and other safety improvement programs and is strictly correlated to low employment numbers (Klaiber ,2018; Shrivastastava  & Stefanick, 2015).

According to the BLS statistics (2017), the non-fatal injury rate of the O&G industry was 1.5, while the same rate for the construction industry was 3.1, statistically making the O&G safer than construction by a factor of 2. However, the BLS statistics (2017) fatal injuries rate for O&G is 12.9, while the construction fatality rate is 9.5, making O&G performance worse by a factor of 1.4.

This anomaly is further accentuated by the fact that, when arranged based on their non-fatal injury rate (Appendix 1), the industries list will be similar to the list resulted from arranging them based on the fatality rate (Appendix 2). This supports Heinrich’s (1931) and later researchers’ findings that there is a ratio between minor injuries, severe injuries and fatalities.

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The O&G is the one notable exception, which is explained by a chronic under-reporting of injuries (Foster & Barnetson, 2016).  Using the same ratio of fatalities /injuries as in construction, we can calculate that the real injury rate for the O&G sector is around 4.2, one of the worst among all industries and certainly far from the stated goal, zero.

Furthermore, the real disparity is certainly higher, since there are 21 states where companies report to state agencies, and not to OSHA (Soragham, 2017). Though this is true also for the construction industry, among these 21 states there are some large US O&G producers, such as California, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming (Soragham, 2017). 

The  ISNetWorld statistics for 2017 (ISN Analytics, 2019a) show a Total Recordable injury Rate (TRIF) for NAICS code 211, O&G extraction, is 0.53, suggesting that zero is achievable. However, the fatality rate is 15.71, even higher than reported by BLS, underscoring the under-reporting problem noted above and the unreliability of self-reported data. 

The same database uses different codes for the O&G industry in Canada, making benchmarking impossible. Despite that, we can see the same low TRIF contrasting very high fatality records for some O&G sub-industries (ISN Analytics, 2019b).

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Organization B

ISNet data for Organization B is not available – Organization B is one of the over 600  “hiring clients” operating on another similar platform, Avetta. As a “hiring client” they can see small contractors performance and set health and safety qualifications standards for these contractors, but the subcontractors cannot see Organization B’s performance.

According to self-reported performance (Organization B, 2019) it seems that the TRIF for the organization is very close to zero, allowing Organization B to claim that JT0 is coming to fruition.

This is contradicted by the Alberta Labor data, which shows a disabling injury rate 3-4 times higher than what Organization B’s reported TRIF (Alberta Labor, 2019). The difference has to be in reality even higher, since the disabling injury rate includes only lost time (LTI) and modified work injuries (MWI), but does not include medical aid (MA) injuries, which frequently are the most prevalent type.

The difference between the self-reported LTIF and the LTIF shown on Alberta Labor website (2019) is even higher.

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It is also notable that 2016, a year characterized by low oil prices (Macrotrends, 2019), shows also a reduction in the injury rate, further strengthening the conclusion that apparent improvement in safety performance is credited to low employment rates in the O&G industry.

However, as shown below in the Organization A analysis, Alberta Labor, due to the limitations shown above, shows substantially fewer injuries that the WCB record, which is a better representation of the injuries for which an employee had to seek medical attention. For organizations such as Organization B, even that number (not available to third parties) could be gamed, because they have their own on-site medics and employees’ injuries do not appear in the public record.

Organization B does not publish any fatality data on its website, but Alberta Labor shows a number of fatalities in 2014.  Though later years show no fatalities for Organization B employees, its contractors working on Organization B sites sustained fatalities, supporting Barnetson’s (2010) claim that some companies subcontract hazardous work as a means of decreasing their own injury rate at the expense of their contractors. Gaille (2014) determined that 16% of all fatalities in the O&G industry are contractors working on O&G sites not operated by the company that pays them.

Organization A

According to self-reported performance Organization A’s TRIF (Organization A, 2019) averages around 1, which is a number good enough to keep the company on the bidder list for most major clients in the O&G industry. 

However, for a specific client, Organization A’s TRIF was still too high to be allowed to be awarded the contract (Company A, 2019). The client suggested Organization A only reports the injuries related to the scope of work to be executed. By ignoring the injuries from another side of the business, Organization A artificially reduced its injury rate.  After doing that, the contract was awarded to Organization A, reinforcing the idea that the industry knows and accepts the manipulation of injury data and plays the “zero injuries” game with full knowledge of the system being gamed by their subcontractors.  From this perspective, we can also argue this is a classical example of destructive leadership, where the job got done at the expense of ethics, and the need to get the job done offers the moral justification to tip the scale (Hughes, Ginnett & Curphy, 2015).

This shows that JT0 programs, designed to improve safety performance, only make data less accurate (Barnetson, 2010).

Alberta Labor (2019) numbers are aligned with Organization A’s internal reporting, or lower, because, as stated above, Alberta Labor only includes in its statistics MWI and LTI.  This is obvious from the discrepancy between these numbers and the WCB recorded injuries for Organization A (WCB, 2019), where only one year, 2015, shows an alignment between WCB, Alberta Labor and self-reported data. For all other years researched, it appears that the self-reported injury numbers and rates have been generally halved when compared to WCB numbers, in order to maintain a low TRIF and keep the organization competitive when bidding for contracts. A third party auditor stated that the organization has improperly categorized recordable injuries as non-recordable.

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A motivator for not including all the injuries that appear in the WCB record into the self-reported numbers is, for all organizations, not only Organization A, the “perpetuation of the careless worker myth” (Barnetson, 2010) by the Government of Alberta and other regulatory bodies. The organizations feel it would be unjust to lose bidding opportunities because of workers’ carelessness, and, as such, accidents that are felt to be the worker’s fault are removed from the record. A third-party auditor (2019), in the review of Organization A’s incident investigations, concluded that in certain cases employees have been blamed for the accidents, likely explaining the removal of the injury from the records.

The auditor (2019) noted that though Organization A had a target zero goal, no other health and safety corporate goals and supporting programs have been identified, highlighting the major shortcoming of TJ0 programs – most of them are not programs, but mostly a leadership vision unsupported by leverage-able leading indicators. Real programs have not only ‘wildly important goals’, but also a strategy for execution with leverage-able leading indicators, visible scoreboards and a schedule of accountability (McChesney, Covey and Huling, 2012).

Finally, a quick look at Organization A and Organization B’s externally verifiable data shows that there is not a gradual progression towards zero, but that performance varies up or down from one year to another.  Fluctuations in oil and gas prices are one explanation for these swings (Klaiber ,2018; Shrivastastava  & Stefanick, 2015). The second explanation is that long term zero injury periods seem to be the result of simple randomness and not connected to the JT0 programs (Clemens, 2005).

Conclusions and recommendations


Jimm Pitts of Northrop Grumman stated: “you begin with the end in mind… and then figure it out how to make it happen” (Kouzes & Posner, 2007).  It can be argued that the O&G industry always had the intent to achieve zero injuries, but failed to identify the means for doing this.

First, zero is a misleading goal, because: “the absence of something (injuries) is not proof of the existence of something else (safety). Zero does not mean an organization is safe, only that a specific event did not happen (Quilley, 2018), or it has not been reported.

Second, this failure may arise from the employer’s skewed frame of reference. Employers, such as Organization A or Organization B, invest in occupational health, expect a return on investment, and equate investments with being safe. Under these conditions, from the organization’s perspective, any accident can only be explained by blaming the employee. This ignores any improvements that could be made by the organizations. Alberta’s government “Stupid” and “Bloody Lucky” campaigns focus strictly on worker’s behaviour (Barnetson, 2010), reinforcing the employer’s opinion that only if the employees would be more careful incidents would not happen.

Third, the organization’s management is subject to role conflict (Hughes, Ginnett & Curphy 2015). While most organizations state that safety is their first priority, the reality is that management is responsible to shareholders for turning a profit (Noe et al, 2017). Arguably, the more we invest in safety, the safer we are, but also the less profitable, so a cost-benefit approach is often adopted by management (Foster & Barnetson, 2016). In a cost-leading strategy, frequently employed in O&G, controlling the costs, including safety costs, is a path to competitive advantage (Noe et al, 2017).

Finally, zero is not a SMART goal, as defined by Noe et al (2017). Zero is not specific, achieving “0” does not provide any direction on who should do what to get the result.  It is not measurable since we can’t track our progress toward reaching the goal.  It is not achievable since nobody has yet achieved zero injuries for an extended period of time (Ivensky, 2016).  It is relevant to the organization, but metrics do not drive performance in employees (Kouzes & Posner, 2007), because safety is a hygiene factor and is not motivating for employees (Hughes, Ginnett & Curphy, 2015).

More than anything else it is not timely; without a clear, achievable deadline there is no urgency for the organization or the employees to reach it (Hughes, Ginnett & Curphy, 2015). Leaders that are fully aware of the past substantially increase their time horizon for reaching the goal (Kouzes & Posner, 2007). The fact that many organizations do not know or acknowledge their real past performance might be the most important single contributor to management holding the view that JT0 programs will achieve expected results within a short timeframe (Senge et al, 1994).


The most important recommendation of this study can be best summarized by citing Deming (1986): “Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the workforce asking for zero … Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes … belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the workforce”.  As such, the government and organizations should stop JT0 programs and associated slogans.

Susca (2019), further develops the idea that many accident causes are beyond employees’ control, suggesting that organizations focus their energy into identifying organization-wide system weaknesses. This approach should finally put to rest the myth of the “careless worker” and place the onus for employee safety on the organization.

JT0 programs are focused on the end result – zero injuries. This is a lagging indicator and its achievement or failure is confirmed at the end of the reporting period, transforming the organization into a spectator that has no ability to influence the outcome. To become a player, each organization needs to identify, collect and analyze meaningful leading indicators that can be leveraged to achieve lower injuries. This additional data will allow them to react to the variability inherent to work activities before accidents happen (Hollnagel, Wears & Braithwaithe, 2015). Generating, organizing and distributing knowledge is instrumental in becoming a learning organization (Waddell et al, 2017), which is essential for being proactive, and is indicative of better safety performance.

In masculine, individualistic, indulgent and short term oriented societies, such as the US and Canada (Hofstede Insights, 2019, annex 3), employees will hide injuries to conserve perfect performance and be rewarded for it. Organizations should stop rewarding perfect performance and reward proactive reporting to increase the organization’s opportunities to learn. Shifting to collective rewards would also increase internal accountability.

Regulatory bodies should standardize the most common leading indicators for the industry and normalize them (such as number of inspections/site, frequency of certification inspections/equipment, number of audits/year, etc) to create equal frames of reference among organizations. These bodies should externally audit these organizations, based on this set standard, make these audits public to be used as selection criteria in bidding processes, to eliminate data manipulation and make evaluations fair and easy.

Linking claims cost to insurance premiums creates incentives for employers to hide or under-report accidents (Barnetson, 2010). To eliminate the incentives for under-reporting, WCB insurance premiums should be set per industry and not based on individual performance, since performance pricing did not result in better performance (Barnetson, 2010).

Regulatory bodies should substantially increase the fines for willful safety violations, to ensure the fine is higher than the cost of compliance, thus enticing employers to comply proactively, not after recording an injury.

All injuries should be investigated with the participation of an external body, such as in aviation (Diggory, 2017), and the accident, findings and effective corrective actions should be published on an industry-wide platform to transform them in explicit knowledge and to help all organizations learn and continuously improve (Noe et al, 2017). Injury databases, such as WCB, Alberta Labor, etc, should be synchronized to eliminate data gaming by employers.

Having a Zero injury goal by itself it is not conducive to better safety performance and in the absence of a substantial leading indicators program, it is likely conducive to a poor safety climate that is inviting the hiding and underreporting of accidents, which can hinder organizational learning and continuous improvement. 


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