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RISKY DEBATE

TECHNICAL & PRACTICE

On the very day that The Architects' Journal was holding its conference on changes in health and safety legislation, focusing on how to manage risk, 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 (HSC) were actually agreeing with me. Its conference was entitled 'Health and Safety: Sensible Management or Bureaucratic Straitjacket'. Sometimes, it seems, messages take a while to filter through to the shop floor.

While our conference ignored the fact that Britain has the second lowest fatal workplace injuries in the EU, as well as construction fatalities that are half the EU average, the HSC conference was admitting it had lost control of a 'sensible balance in the management of risk.' While Thouria Istephan of Foster and Partners was telling our meeting that '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 per cent in the past decade suggests, to those with health and safety industry mentalities, that they are doing something right. Meanwhile, it fell to 'radicals' like Lord Hunt, the Lords' Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, to point out that risk aversion is a bigger problem than statistics. It is societally corrosive, a more significant danger altogether. The fact that there's a potential planning supervisor/coordinator fee to be got out of risk culture is a somewhat mercenary view when, as Lord Hunt says, 'excessive risk aversion does damage. It hits organisational efficiency and competitiveness, restricts personal freedom, and damages the cause of protecting people from real harm.' In recent years, risk avoidance has been replaced by risk aversion. The Swedish parliament, for example, has adopted a Road Traffic Safety Bill with the premise that eventually no-one will be killed or seriously injured within the road transport system. It suggests reducing mobility, or reducing speeds down to a level where accidents do not cause serious injuries. Given that the first ever road accident fatality was caused by a vehicle doing 4mph, we can see what sort of world the safety advocates would have us live in.

Even Tony Blair noted recently that 'we are in danger of having 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, like Blair et al, can paint themselves as pawns of public litigiousness.

In fact, this government, more than most, has promoted the precautionary principle that has helped to alienate many people from a rational approach to health and safety.

From mobile-phone masts to MMR; from bird flu to BSE; and 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.

Visit www. hse. gov. uk to contribute to the health and safety debate

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