Safety decision-making – Risk versus reward

3d_blocksSafety professionals are often accused of advocating “total safety”, or the elimination of all risk. Of course, those in the know understand that absolute safety is an impossibility and the law only requires safety measures to be taken to control risks “so far as is reasonably practicable”. This special report by RoSPA Partnership Consultant, Rodger Bibbings, looks at the reasons why things need to be made as safe as necessary, not always as safe as possible

Dealing with uncertainty

The traditional approach to risk decision-making used by professionals is whether the risk presented by a hazard/activity is tolerable or intolerable? If the probability and extent of harm are just too high, then the risk should be regarded as intolerable and the activity abandoned.

On the other hand, if the risk is broadly tolerable, then is it justified by associated benefits? If benefits are deemed low, you need to think about abandoning the activity or seeking a less risky alternative. But if the risk is justified by benefits, then you have to make sure the level of risk that remains is optimised by the risk control measures you plan to take.

This means balancing costs of your safety measures against the marginal reduction in residual risks. When you reach the point where costs of the next safety measure you could take are totally disproportionate to any extra safety gain, you can assume you have done enough. Of course, you always have to set suitable risk limits, like speed limits etc, to indicate levels of risk that should not be exceeded, and you may need to adopt a precautionary approach to deal with uncertainty.

 How safe is “safe enough”?

Safety decision-making is often quite tricky, whether you are setting exposure limits for an industrial chemical or thumbs_up_downdeciding on the right precautions for a school trip. Data may be patchy or non-existent, and people invariably have different views about how acceptable small residual risks are and how safe is “safe enough”.

This is also the case when considering benefits. In everyday life, we all have to confront whether a risk is worth the benefit, like is an average risk of death in pregnancy of one in 8,200 maternities worth the joy of having a baby? Risk/benefit assessment is not easy. Daniel Khaneman in his excellent book, Thinking Fast and Slow, shows how our rational and intuitive appreciation of risk is out of step with each other.

The process of risk acceptance is subjective. If risks are imposed; if there is no perceived benefit; if they are not seen as controllable; if the effects are perceived to be catastrophic; and if those exposed do not trust the experts or the risk managers/regulators, then they may take a different view. This could be said of opponents of fracking, GM or nuclear power. At the other end of the risk scale, many people are prepared to accept quite significant risks like those associated with smoking, having unprotected sex, using a mobile while driving and so on.

Different people may take different views about the benefits of certain risks if safer alternatives are available. Consider whether the risk involved in travelling on a motorcycle is worth the fun and convenience compared with the lower risk of using a car? Car drivers and motorcyclists tend to disagree on this.

Balancing the benefits

Then again, you may have to balance risks with different kinds of benefits, such as is the risk of moving an older person to sheltered housing, so that they are not at risk of falling due to living alone, worth the sense of despair and frustration they could experience in leaving the home they love?

Estimating the probability of adverse outcomes is always an imprecise science and there are always lots of uncertainties. The important thing to remember is that risk/benefit assessment is involved not just in deciding if a risky activity is broadly justifiable, but in fine tuning just how safe you need to make it. This is because when deciding on whether the cost (money, time, trouble) of the next increment in risk control is worth the associated safety gain, and the potential loss of benefit needs to be factored in as an opportunity cost.

In theory it might seem that there will always be a tension between accepting a slightly higher level of risk in order to allow access to benefits versus foregoing this benefit as a result of opting for additional safety. But in practice there are often smart solutions which mean that the two objectives are not quite so mutually exclusive.

so mutually exclusive.

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