Beware of safety!

Modern health and safety regulations have become an obstacle to innovation and adventure, E&T investigates.

A risk assessment document might have persuaded Captain Scott to equip better for his doomed Antarctic expedition. Columbus, setting sail in his creaky ship, would not be allowed out of harbour today, but someone had to attempt his journey before the New World could connect with the Old. The first space travellers flew aboard hastily converted missiles with a one-in-five launch failure rate, yet considered it a privilege to take the ride. Astronaut Gus Grissom said: "If we die, we want people to accept it. We're in a risky business."

Whatever the merits or drawbacks of our modern civilisation, we have built it by taking countless personal, technological and societal risks. Today it seems as if a forest of paperwork is impeding our access to adventure.

Britain's Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. No one can doubt the value of sensible safety regulations applied to work places and public venues. A long and sordid history of accidents and injuries tells us that some employers and entrepreneurs will always be tempted to cut corners. Even so, there is a widespread perception that we are all but immobilised by 'health and safety gone mad'.

We learn, for instance, of a St George's Day communal fried breakfast in aid of a Wiltshire, UK primary school, cruelly cancelled at the last minute after a safety assessment concluded that eggs could not be cooked by untrained volunteers. Peter Wallis, chairman of the parent/teacher association, said: "These breakfasts have been going on for many years and we've never poisoned anyone." Cue lots of disappointed kiddies. Then there's the amateur theatrical group in Cornwall, UK that had to register wooden swords and toy pistols with the police. When you pulled the pistol's trigger, a flag popped out with the word 'BANG' on it. 

In 1759 Samuel Johnson, the tetchy godfather of the famous dictionary, wrote: "Prudence keeps life safe, but does not often make it happy. Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must be first overcome." But these days we are expected to consider 'all possible objections' to almost every activity that we plan.

Judith Hackitt, chair of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), says that "the problem tends to be the misinterpretation of what is actually required". When it comes to the practical implementation of HSE guidelines, whether in the workplace or at a village fête, "we have shown what's 'good enough', and that's all you have to do". The HSE insists that "we want to save lives, not stop them. Our approach is to seek a balance between the unachievable aim of absolute safety and the kind of poor management of risk that damages lives and the economy".

The HSE's attitude seems pragmatic enough. Why, then, do we encounter so much excessive zeal in the application of their rules? The answers to this riddle are complex, but it could be instructive to look at the way that engineers analyse risk, and compare this with how the rest of society thinks about it. A tragic but useful discussion point is the series of disasters that brought Britain's hopes for air transport crashing to the ground half a century ago.

Quantifying the failure rates

On May 2, 1952, the British Overseas Airways Corporation proudly announced the world's first regular international jet airliner service, using the sleek de Havilland DH-106 Comet. One year later, a Comet broke up mid-flight near Calcutta. In January 1954 another disintegrated and fell into the sea near Elba. Three months later, another self-destructed.

Charged with recovering British aerial prestige at almost any cost, the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough immersed a newly-built Comet in a gigantic water tank and subjected its cabin to repeated internal pressure changes, mimicking what would normally occur during ascent and descent. These investigations revealed a tendency for metal fatigue in a tiny section of fuselage near a window frame. Small cracks eventually expanded into terrifying gashes.

America's Boeing 707 won the lion's share of the market while the UK's airliner industry faltered, but the Comet's tragedy was not entirely in vain. Given the complexity of the machines, air transport is amazingly safe today as engineers have learned how to attach reliable numbers to a vast array of risks. The Comet story highlights a central characteristic of risk analysis. It is based on the direct measurement of relevant parameters. This, in turn, requires money, material and labour.

Who will stump up the cash to check how dangerous fried eggs might be if cooked by 'untrained volunteers'? And what about the theatre? Where are the numbers specifying the lethality of wooden swords? If these numbers haven't been compiled, then who has the moral authority to interfere?

Risk versus hazard

John Adams, Emeritus Professor of Geography at University College London (UCL) is a leading academic expert in risk: a consequence of his interest in environmental and transport debates. He's well aware that numerical analysis is simply not appropriate for many everyday dangers. "The number of potential harms to which useful numbers can be attached is tiny compared to the number through which we must navigate using unquantified judgement," he says.

Officials imposing safety regulations should be more rigourous in distinguishing between hazards and risks. "Hazard is something that could lead to harm, while risk is hazard with numbers attached. Risk is the product of the probability of a particular harm and its magnitude."

'Magnitude' is a key concept here. The chances of a modern airliner crashing are very slim, but if anything does go wrong, hundreds of lives could be snuffed out in an instant. Hence the costs and complexity of risk analysis for the airline industry. The chances of an asteroid hitting a populated area is less than one in a million, but the magnitude of such a catastrophe could be so great that it justifies funding for space experts to keep an eye on rogue asteroids.

If every village fête in the country decided to have a fry-up cooked by 'untrained volunteers', one can't help suspecting that the potential magnitude of any mishaps should be too small to merit nationwide avoidance measures; and if such measures aren't justified nationally, then surely it's not fair to impose them locally? Unless, that is, a lawyer says otherwise.

It's not just the tabloid newspapers who sense something wrong with today's safety-obsessed culture. Professionals familiar with risk analysis see an alarming disconnect between actual safety and the avoidance of legal culpability. Professor Roderick Smith, chairman of the Future Rail Research Centre at Imperial College London, has investigated the UK's most harrowing train wrecks. He, of all people, understands the difference between genuine safety procedures and mere bureaucratic back-covering. "Safety leaflets on trains are complete nonsense, because nobody ever reads them. But there must be a reason for having them there. I suspect it's so that the train companies can say, in the event of some unlikely event, that they did their best to protect their passengers."

Adams sees the same problem looming over fêtes and other seemingly innocent pleasures. "The fear of becoming legally liable is perhaps the main driver of the excessive risk aversion that bans hanging flower baskets and forbids people to play a game of conkers without wearing goggles. For most institutional managers, there are no rewards for taking risks, only costs for failure." The key question is whether or not we, as individuals, are ready to reclaim some degree of personal responsibility for everyday accidents. Smith is dismayed by "the 'no win, no fee' lawyers for whom you hear many adverts on the radio".

A keen climber, Smith says that some Lake District clubs, "mindful that mountaineering can be dangerous, have done 'everything in their power to make it safer'. This is an interesting statement because, in some ways, it negates the purpose of the exercise". His point is that risk is not necessarily something that we should always avoid. It's the essential spice of life, at least for some of us.

In 1968, the American naturalist Edward Abbey wrote: "A venturesome minority will always be eager to get off on their own. Let them take risks, for God's sake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches. That is their right and privilege."

Aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart said "I am aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it", before clambering into her fragile plane. Helen Keller, the famous deaf-blind campaigner for the disabled, certainly didn't wish to be wrapped in cotton-wool. "Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do children, as a whole, experience it. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."

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