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SAFETY IS MORE THAN ‘CALCULATING NUMBERS’ SAYS HSE BOSS

Quantitative assessment not the determinant of what is ‘reasonably practicable’

HSE Chair, Judith Hackitt, has mused over the question “How safe is safe enough” which was put to her at a conference she addressed recently.

The questioner asked how unlikely a serious accident had to be before he could stop worrying about ending up in court. One in a hundred? A thousand? A million? Ms Hackitt thought he was in effect asking “if the answer’s 1 in 10,000 am I safe from prosecution?”

Not about doing things to avoid sanctions

The response from Ms Hackitt is reproduced below.

“I completely understand the desire to be safe from prosecution but this can’t be the right way to approach it.

Successful risk management is not about ticking boxes or calculating numbers. And it is not about doing things to avoid sanctions. The primary goal is not to avoid a fine or a criminal record, but to stop people being made unwell or being hurt or killed by their work.

The reason our regulations are backed by a criminal enforcement regime is because Parliament and successive governments have been clear that it is not acceptable for lives to be put at risk or damaged because of a failure to manage workplace risk.

In the most serious cases, it’s true that you may face an unlimited fine or go to prison if you are found guilty of failing to manage the risks, which resulted in someone being seriously hurt. But, worse still, you can’t undo the suffering of those injured or the grief of the bereaved. Some people may have to live with that for the rest of their lives.

Managing risk means managing people and every one of them is different. They live their lives and bring their experiences and attitudes with them to work. Human factors, in the jargon. That’s not easy to factor into the numerical systems driven approach to risk management.

For managers and leaders especially this numerical approach to risk is dangerous – it makes it easy to distance yourself from the reality of what is really happening and the risks that people may be taking in your business.

Systems and procedures are important, but they’re not enough. For me the acid test of safe enough gets measured on a different scale. Would I let my son or daughter do that? Would I be happy to see someone I cared about putting themselves at risk in that way? If the answer is no, then why should you feel comfortable asking someone in your business to do it?

Comment

Some will be unhappy at the lack of certainty and dismissal of quantitative assessments expressed by the HSE Chair. However, those seeking greater certainty should be careful what they wish for. A regulatory system based on qualitative judgement may be uncertain but (unless decisions are made in bad faith) it provides for greater flexibility and decisions less readily subject to challenge.

An important point made by Ms Hackitt is that the best leaders and managers take a keen interest in health and safety at the sharp end of the business rather than merely taking comfort from ‘numerics’ which may bear no real relationship to ‘reality’.

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