Taking a Risk

Austin Williams | 8 September 2005

On the very day that the Architects’ Journal was holding its conference on changes in Health and Safety legislation, focussing on how to manage risk, so the House of Lords was hosting a conference focussing on worries that risk culture had gone too far. 

So at the same time that I was getting a short shrift from Stephen Wright of the Health and Safety Executive for questioning what I called the ‘creeping paralysis of risk culture’, his bosses at the Health and Safety Commission were actually agreeing with me. Their conference was entitled ‘Health and Safety: Sensible Management or Bureaucratic Straightjacket.’ Sometimes, it seems, messages take a little while to filter through to the shop floor.

Thus, while our conference ignored the fact that Britain has the second lowest workplace fatal injuries in the EU; and its construction fatalities are half the EU average; the HSC conference was admitting that it has lost control of a ‘sensible balance in the management of risk.’

While Thouria Istephan of Foster and Partners was telling our meeting that ‘the risk assessment is an invaluable tool for protecting yourself’, Lord Falconer was more astutely, and correctly pointing out that, in fact, risk consciousness has led to a situation where ‘for every accident someone is at fault.’ For all his faults, even he recognises the dangers of this vicious circle of blame.

The fact that Britain’s fatal accident rates have fallen by 11 percent in the last decade suggests, to those with health and safety industry mentalities that we are doing something right. Meanwhile, it fell to radicals like Lord Hunt, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to point out that risk aversion is a bigger problem. It is societally corrosive. A more significant danger altogether. The fact that there’s a potential fee for an architect/planning superviser/coordinator to be got out of risk culture, is a somewhat shallow viewpoint when, as Lord Hunt says ‘excessive risk aversion does damage. It hits organisational efficiency and competitiveness, it restricts personal freedoms and it damages the cause of protecting people from real harm.’

Over recent years, risk avoidance has been replaced by risk aversion. The Swedish parliament, for example, has adopted a Road Traffic Safety Bill premised the guidelines that eventually no-one will be killed or seriously injured within the road transport system. They suggest reducing mobility or reducing speeds down to a level where accidents do not cause serious injuries. Given that the first road accident fatality was Bridget Driscoll, knocked down and killed by a vehicle doing 4mph in 1896, we can see what sort of world the safety advocates would provide us with.

Even Tony Blair noted recently that ‘we are in danger of having a wholly disproportionate attitude… putting pressure on policy-making… to act to eliminate risk in a way that is out of all proportion to the potential damage. The result is a plethora of rules, guidelines… having utterly perverse consequences.’

But perhaps the most perverse consequence of this debate is that politicians can paint themselves as pawns of public litigiousness. In fact, this government, more than most, has promoted the precautionary principle which has helped to alienate many people from rationality From mobile phone masts to MMR; from bird flu to BSE, from CJD to CO2; from terrorism to technology, the government has studiously avoided quelling people’s fears.

Blame, such as it is, for the growth of an irrational, risk-averse, litigious climate lies squarely at the door of those who accommodate to it.

First published in the  Architects’ Journal, 8th September 2005

Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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