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How safe is safe enough?

"How safe is safe enough?"

It's a question that was posed to me at a conference I was speaking at recently.

It struck me as an odd question at the time. The man asking wanted to know 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? He wanted some form of numerical answer - a bit like 42 if you're a Douglas Adams fan.

"If the answer's 1 in 10,000," he was in effect asking, "am I safe from prosecution?"

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?