Health, Safety and Risk

The regulation of risks to health and safety is a particularly tricky policy area. There are constant complaints that we are paying far too much attention to health and safety, and producing dull young adults who are risk- and exercise-averse. However ...

  • there are now less than 2,000 deaths on our roads every year, compared with around 8,000 in the 1960s, and
  • we have cut child deaths as a result of preventable accidents from 1,100 in 1979 to less than 200 in 2011.

There aren't many parents who would turn back these particular clocks, especially as. parents are having fewer children, and parents seem to be much more invested in their offspring, both for the children's sake and as extensions of the parents' identity.  Parental fear that one silly incident might lose it all is inevitably overwhelming.

On the other hand - the UK has invested heavily in automatic train protection (ATP) where every £5 million was said to save one life - but the same expenditure could save many more lives on the roads. How can this make sense? A wonderfully entertaining and thought-provoking introduction to the perception of risk, risk compensation and risk management, may be found in Professor John Adams' writing, beginning with his 1998 lecture Risk in a Hyper-Mobile World

We are generally comfortable with risks that we take every day, but new ones, or dramatic ones, worry us.  More detail may be found in this note about how Government should respond to concerns about risks to health and safety.  

Other interesting documents include a Review of Risk Case Studies, and the October 2006 report by the Better Regulation Commission: Risk, Responsibility, Regulation: Whose Risk Is It Anyway?.

I also recommend Paul Almond's The Dangers of Hanging Baskets which analyses the impact of regulatory myths such as the supposed banning of floral-display hanging baskets. These silly stories represent damaging challenges to the legitimacy and effectiveness of health & safety regulators. 

(The Health and Safety Executive has published a handy checklist.  There is no law banning conkers in playgrounds;  candyfloss on a stick has not been prohibited;  the sack race has not been banned from sports day.)

Lord Young's 2010 review of health and safety regulation is summarised here and you can also examine the BSE/vCJD scare as a case study as well as a commentary on the BSE Report.

It is worth remembering, by the way, that many annoying 'Elf & Safety' prohibitions have been imposed on event organisers by insurance companies worried about their clients being sued by an injured person.  Daniel Davies commented that "we appear to have developed an entire secondary and privatised regulatory system run by insurance companies".  More generally, some organisations seem to have begun to believe that 'where there's blame, there's a claim' and adopted disproportionately risk averse practices in response.    The Secret Barrister's Fake Law contains an excellent chapter discussing these and related issues.

A more general discussion of the effective regulation of large and small firms may be found here and here.

Historical Perspectives

It is fascinating to read Christopher Sirrs' description of the background to the introduction of modern health & safety legislation in his - Accidents and Apathy ; The Construction of the 'Robens Philosophy' of Occupational Safety and Health Regulation in Britain, 1961-1974 . Surely no-one would want to reintroduce the attitude to health and safety demonstrated in this 1964 photograph?

Those interested in longer term trends in this area will wish to read this very detailed Institute of Occupational Safety and Health Research Report written by Paul Almond and Mike Esbester:- The Changing Legitimacy of Health and Safety at work,1960–2015.

I also recommend Paul Almond's Revolution Blues: The Reconstruction of Health and Safety Law as 'Common-sense' Regulation in which Professor Almond criticises the 2010-15 Coalition Government's encouragement of 'common sense' regulation - to the detriment of sensible regulation driven by effective, widely consultative and high quality consultation.

Communicating Risk and Uncertainty

Radiation and radioactivity are particularly scary concepts for a large part of the population. Here is a useful note about the link between radiation and cancer and also a review of what happened when radiation and risk came together in the 2001 depleted uranium scare.

Follow these links to access:

It is also instructive to learn from the government's mistakes when responding to the 2020 COVID pandemic.

Other Useful Stuff

The website of the Health and Safety Executive which contains interesting documents such as Reducing Risk, Protecting People and the As Low as Reasonably Possible (ALARP) Guidance for HSE staff, both of which provide an insight into HSE's approach to risk management and control.

Follow this link for a summary of basic scientific facts, figures and relationships:- essential reading for all GCSE and A level students as well as civil servants trying to make sense of scientific papers etc.

The Institute of Physics offers a very good, jargon-free website which will answer many of your science-related questions. It is ideal for those questions that you don't like to ask in the office for fear of betraying your lack of scientific knowledge!

Martin Stanley

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