Reducing zero risk

Judith Hackitt head of the UK Health and Safety Executive, has recently been complaining about “the creeping culture of risk-aversion and fear of litigation” and the “jobsworths” responsible for its promotion. The HSE appears to be losing the battle. Below I set out a piece that I was asked to write for my local tenants and residents news letter and website – http://thebrunswick.org/ .


Brunswick Tenants, Residents and Leaseholders

Many of you (I’m told 370) will have received a letter from City Restoration seeking an appointment to “carry out safety works to your windows.”

The windows in question are the vertical opening ones. Those commissioning the work believe that there is a risk that they might blow open in a high wind, shatter, and shower those beneath with shards of glass.

The proposed solution is to apply safety film to the insides of the windows in question. Flats above the Renoir-Gap – that has many people walking and eating below – have already received the treatment. My flat received this treatment before I bought it and I can vouch for the fact that it is invisible – I didn’t know I had it.

Camden now proposes to apply the same “safety works” to all the other flats in the Brunswick on the grounds that any opening window could blow open, shatter and shower people below with glass. It would appear to be a very small risk. Very few people can be seen walking below these windows – and even fewer in conditions of storm and high winds. No statistics are available for the number that have blown open and shattered. But when I inquired what sort of risk assessment had been done to justify these “safety works” I was told that the works were justified by the judgment that “IT COULD HAPPEN”.

I have been reassured by the Camden officer responsible that the cost of the works will not appear on our service charge bills; the cost will be recovered from the Camden Housing Repairs Budget – which means that, if the same zero risk strategy is being pursued throughout Camden, we will pay for it through our Council Tax.

For an extended version of this complaint please see my website at www.john-adams.co.uk .


The HSE provides some guidance

“HSE believes that an individual risk of death of one in a million per annum for both workers and the public corresponds to a very low level of risk and should be used as a guideline for the boundary between the broadly acceptable and tolerable regions.” (Reducing risks, protecting people http://www.hse.gov.uk/risk/theory/r2p2.htm).

It goes on “we live in an environment of appreciable risks of various kinds which contribute to a background level of risk – typically a risk of death of one in a hundred per year averaged over a lifetime. A residual risk of one in a million per year is extremely small when compared to this background level of risk. Indeed many activities which people are prepared to accept in their daily lives for the benefits they bring, for example, using gas and electricity, or engaging in air travel, entail or exceed such levels of residual risk.” Such risks, the HSE advises are “generally regarded as insignificant and adequately controlled.”

I looked up the numbers. The risk is already insignificant and adequately controlled. In England and Wales in the last year for which data are available 2 people died as a result of “contact with sharp glass” (Office of National Statistics, Mortality Statistics, Series DH2 no.32 Table 2.19). http://www.statistics.gov.uk/downloads/theme_health/Dh2_32/DH2_No32_2005.pdf

Spread over the population of England and Wales this represents an annual risk of 1 in 27 million, considerably less than the risk of being killed by lightening. But given the great variety of ways in which people might encounter sharp glass, in addition to being showered by a shattered window, it is highly probable that the actuarial risk of dying from the threat that Camden is now addressing is zero.

The fear of being found guilty of culpable negligence is one of the principal drivers of the creeping risk aversion denounced by Hackett. If something nasty could happen on your watch, and you might be held responsible, and you don’t have to pay for measures that reduce its likelihood, why take the chance, however minute the risk?

Those with an institutional responsibility for safety can always find one more thing that could happen. Their task is open ended. The above example of bureaucratic risk aversion is a small one of no great consequence – on its own. But it is endlessly repeated and wastes an enormous amount of money. Many things “could happen” – the precautionary principle allied to a vivid imagination can bankrupt any government.

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  1. Ronan_FR says:

    Should we rely only on statistics for taking risks decisions? I don’t think so… Statistics are a great tool for recurrent events. But there are events for which there is no statistics but great impacts; Nassim Taleb called them “blacks swans”.

    I am not saying windows shattering is a black swan, but maybe it is not bad after all to look after things that could go bad, even if there is no statistics for those events.

  2. Travisher says:

    I suggest that there is far more risk from roofing tiles and slates. Perhaps Camden might like to consider removing all slates and tiles from their buildings. These do come down with great force as I can attest. A slate came off a house roof and fell between me and the motorbike I was pushing. I don’t think my helmet would have saved me somehow.
    I suspect that there is something else behind this sudden zeal. Maybe they think it will help reduce the amount of broken glass in any up and coming riot about job cuts. maybe someone’s mate gets the contract to apply the film. Who knows what really goes on in the minds of such as these.

  3. SadButMadLad says:

    So the risk is that during a storm a window might break and injure someone below. Think back a bit. Note one point about the sentence. “during a storm”. How many people are going to be out and about during a storm. A lot fewer than during a normal day. This hasn’t been taken into account either in terms of the risk assessment.

    The problem with all these H&S “fixes” is that many of them are seen (most of the time quite rightly) as stupid. The more of these “stupid” H&S fixes are done the more it brings the whole of H&S into disrepute. Just like stupid laws which no one follows and can’t be policed become laughed at and ignored; cf. mobile phones in cars.

  4. johnadams says:

    My lift in the Brunswick is notoriously unreliable. It serves 7 floors. Although Camden appears to have money to spend to reduce the zero risk attached to shattered windows, it cannot find the money to maintain a reliable lift for the elderly and those with mobility handicaps who depend on it. Unlike shattered windows the stairs which we are frequently compelled to use represent a real risk. The source of mortality statistics quoted about notes that 647 people were killed in falls on stairs – overwhelmingly people over 60.

  5. Home Plix says:


    So amazing post here we found, I like it and appreciated your works.
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