Martin Parkinson raises an interesting question (comment on previous post): what should be the reaction to an accident that, a priori, was an extremely low probability event? He suggests that “any attempt to reverse the counterproductive aspects of ‘health and safety culture’ is doomed to failure”. After an accident he argues that most people will say, “well that tragic accident which just occurred could have been easily avoided – it would be unthinkable not to make the obvious small change which would avoid a repetition”. Further, he adds, “the accident might have been freakish and unforeseen, but if there is a seemingly easy and cheap “fix”, then no responsibly-minded person would fail to make that fix …there is no logical point at which you can say your environment has “just the right amount of apparent danger”.
This is an issue that I probed in a recent essay “Dangerous trees?”. See the section entitled “Fault trees, event trees and trees”.
Britain’s Health and Safety Executive declares risks of death of less than 1:1,000,000 to be “acceptable” – defined as “generally regarded as insignificant and adequately controlled”. But how should such risks be calculated? If one divides the number of people killed by trees in Britain every year by the population, the risk works out at about 1:10,000,000. Acceptable? Only until someone is killed.
After the event it is usually possible to identify the cause and the person(s) responsible. A risk worth taking becomes culpable negligence. Hindsight transforms an “acceptable” risk with a probability of 1:10,000,000 into one with a probability of 1:1.
The fear of becoming the legally-liable victim of such a transformation, assisted by no-win-no-fee lawyers, is perhaps the main driver of the excessive risk aversion that bans hanging flower baskets and forbids conkers without goggles. For most institutional risk managers, outside hedge funds, there are no rewards for taking risks, only costs for failure. For them, one accident is one too many. No set of circumstances for which they might be held responsible can be too safe.
Escape from the suffocating safety culture that such reasoning produces can be sought in a “blame-free” culture. After a low-probability “freakish” accident, emphasis should be placed not on establishing guilt and punishment, but on lessons to be learned. Judges, juries and the Health and Safety Executive have important roles to play. Reconstructed foresight, not 20/20 hindsight, should be the standard against which culpability for freakish accidents should be judged.
Thanks Martin for your highly pertinent comments.