Prudence goes off-shore

Following an email encounter with someone involved with risk management in the Norwegian off-shore oil and gas industry, I have put on my website a paper, Prudence and the Gambler, published in 1991 by Shell World – a Shell Oil company publication.

My article was followed, in the same issue, by a “First Reaction” from Koos Visser, Head of Health, Safety and Environment of Shell International. The editor explained “It is perhaps unusual for a magazine to receive a letter before publication of the piece upon which the correspondent wishes to comment.” Apparently a proof copy of my article had been pre-circulated to Shell’s Health and Safety people, and my argument was contrary to company policy – sufficiently contrary to merit a simultaneous rebuttal.

My excuse for resurrecting this old paper is that the argument appears to have made no progress in the intervening 15 years.

My paper called attention to the problem that dangerous working environments – nowadays called “safety critical” – tend to attract risk-taking personalities. In earlier times such men were romanticised as 49ers, rough-necks and Dangerous Dans.

Visser, on behalf of Shell Health and Safety, proffered two responses:
• He suggested that we ought to distinguish between individual and group attitudes to risk – “Adams is talking about personal, not group, motivation.” But what if a “group” consists of a collection of Dangerous Dans? The official answer is that “organizational culture, training and concern for others can instil the self discipline to reject risk at work.” Perhaps.

• He argued “whatever the truth of Adams’ thesis” it can never serve as the basis of company policy: “The aim of avoiding all accidents is far from being a public relations puff. It is the only responsible policy. … Turning ‘gambling man’ into ‘zero-risk man’ is just one of the challenges that has to be overcome along the way.”

“Whatever the truth” – a frequently encountered, hand-waving, dismissal of an awkward argument. The “truth” is that the determined pursuit of an extreme (zero-risk) version of the precautionary principle would bankrupt any imaginative government or entrepreneur.

Visser defines “zero risk man” as “one who manages and controls risk”. Here he reveals his, and Shell’s, failure to comprehend risk. To take a risk is to do something that carries with it a probability of an adverse outcome – “zero risk” is an oxymoron.

The challenge that the Norwegian off-shore industry shares with other safety-critical industries is what to do about low-frequency high-impact risks – they don’t happen often, but when they do they are catastrophic. Like airlines, chemical plants and the nuclear industry it has difficulty insulating its workers from its zero risk propaganda. Established safety procedures are supposed to ensure that accidents cannot happen, and indeed they rarely do. A common result is that “safety” routines are not taken seriously, and gone through in a perfunctory manner. Why stay vigilant for the whole of your working life for something that is never supposed to happen?

For more on this theme click on In defence of bad luck.

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