Science and Technology: Weighing up the risk business : Tom Wilkie reports on a new initiative to assess the value of implementing different health and safety improvements

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The Independent Online
FOR THE first time, the Government is to require every office and industrial installation in the land to assess, and report on, the risk that its operations pose to the health and safety of its employees, according to regulations published last week.

Hitherto, risk assessment has been an arcane discipline practised by nuclear safety engineers and a few technical experts in the chemicals industry.

The conclusions of risk assessment can be startling. Last week a report on safety on the London Underground suggested that some of the public inquiry recommendations produced after the King's Cross fire need not be implemented, because risk assessment shows that management should address other, more urgent, hazards.

Conveniently for executives baffled by the concepts and technical terminology, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is organising an international conference on risk assessment in London early next month. It aims 'to demystify' the process, according to the main organiser, Dr Sam Harbison, the Government's Chief Inspector of Nuclear Installations. Everyone in life is a risk assessor, he believes, because it is something we all do all the time. Some, of course, opt for high-risk pursuits - such as hang-gliding or water skiing - because they believe the 'benefits' outweigh the risks. But if ordinary people are good at risk assessment, Dr Harbison has found that international bureaucracies are not.

Dr Harbison had the idea for the conference when he was working on policies relating to hazardous chemicals and, with his experience of the risk assessment principles developed for the nuclear industry, he saw how uncoordinated and illogical were the directives coming from international bodies such as the European Community.

For example, banning one pesticide in the absence of systematic analyses of risks from its possible substitutes could make matters worse.

Dr Harbison cites one US study which estimated the costs of government health and safety regulations. The greatest benefit was derived if regulations concentrated on direct safety measures, while costs increased markedly towards the health promotion end of the spectrum. Equipping cars with padded steering wheels and collapsible steering columns saves about 1,300 lives a year in the United States, at a cost of dollars 100,000 per life saved. However, controls on the industrial use of the chemical formaldehyde, proposed in 1985 but never enacted, would have cost dollars 72bn and saved one life in 100 years.

Four years ago, Britain's Health and Safety Executive had its own attempt at assessing risks and, controversially, setting levels for the tolerability of the risk from nuclear power stations. Their analysis, The Tolerability of Risk from Nuclear Power Stations, resulted from the Sizewell nuclear inquiry and was examined at the Hinkley Point nuclear inquiry, beginning in 1988.

Although the HSE tried hard to make the business of risk assessment comprehensible, Dr Harbison acknowledges that it was disappointed by the level of public comment. 'It's hard,' he says, 'to get the public or decision-makers engaged with the subject of risk assessment.' One problem is to find a suitable forum for debate where the issues can be examined properly, he says. Although it helped to have Tolerability examined at a public inquiry, such events are inevitably constrained by the conventions of the adversarial British legal process. 'The Americans are better because their public hearings approach is not so confrontational.'

Another aspect of the way we deal with risk concerns Dr Harbison. 'The average member of the public sees little direct benefit from major installations planned nationally, but built locally. They say, why should they accept the risk on behalf of the rest of society? For such socially regulated risks, we need to go much further down the line than producing risk figures or saying, 'Come to a public inquiry and listen in awe and wonder to the learned people debating them.' '

Why, Dr Harbison wonders, is this kind of important issue not debated in Parliament? 'It might be nave to think it could, but other countries do.'

The Dutch parliament, for example, formally and explicitly debated the issues, setting numerical targets for the sort of industrial risks that might be considered tolerable to individuals and society.

There are some critics who perceive risk assessment as a tactic for delaying action. Dr Harbison concedes that 'when you consider the imponderables of modelling the risks from chemicals in Italy's slow rivers and fast-flowing Scottish streams and try to work out an EC-wide strategy, you can see it would take for ever.'

He believes, however, that the principles of risk assessment can be properly applied to prevent the experts 'pursuing every jot and tittle', and concentrating instead on the significant factors that might cause damage to human health or the environment.

For one involved in regulating nuclear power, the highest of high technology, Dr Harbison appears to have surprising doubts about modern technology: 'I think we have arrived at an unacceptable phase in industrial society. We have allowed technologists to invent and use anything they have come up with in the lab, and we have never asked, 'What if?' This wasn't asked in the old days of the industrial revolution. Now things are invented so quickly and get on to the market so fast that sooner or later we will invent something that could terminally damage our environment.'

Risk assessment, in Dr Harbison's view, will not produce all the answers, but it is a better way of asking those 'what if' questions.

Risk Assessment 1992 starts on 5 October. Details: John Price, HSE, London; 071-243-6266.

A revised edition of 'The Tolerability of Risk From Nuclear Power Stations' will be published by the HSE on 5 October.

(Photograph omitted)