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Peter Cochrane's Blog: No risk, no progress

We're being hamstrung by health and safety tsars

Written at Norwich Airport, UK, and dispatched to silicon.com via a public wi-fi service

The removal of risk from people's lives is leading to a lack of understanding, imagination and, worst of all, real progress.

Recent constraints on the working environment in the UK prompted me to muse on the following proposition. Suppose a health and safety directorate had been the first of all human innovations and institutions. Can you imagine the consequences?

I think it goes something like this: no running, climbing, swimming, throwing and definitely no tools or weapons - and certainly no wars. So no progress then. Humans would have been in stasis pretty much like most animals.

Let's fast forward to the start of the industrial revolution before we invoke health and safety systems: no large-scale smelting of ores, no engines, no advanced tools or weapons, no wire, no mass-produced glass or anything else, and certainly no telegraph.

So, no progress in communications, medicine, education or trade, and millions would be dying as a result.

Fast forward a decade or two at a time and: no trains, trucks, cars or planes, no telecoms, no space exploration, no computers or IT, no modern medicines, no idea about evolution, the cosmos or much else, and yet more millions would have died as a result.

I suppose the basket-weaving, back-to-basics fraternity might applaud such an outcome, but I do not. I cannot see a single civilisation in the long history of our species that has prospered and survived on ignorance and a lack of risk taking. Quite the reverse - they have all perished.

And the instruments of their demise have usually been events that they could only attribute to the will of the gods. That is because they had very little understanding of anything.

Now fast forward to today: our children are denied freedom and adventure and an exciting education just because there is too much risk in the old hands-on mode of getting to know the physics and chemistry of the real world.

And this appears to be one factor that drives them to computer games and the virtual world. What a pity. How much they are missing.

In Western education and industry, teachers and managers feel inhibited by the oppressive, risk-averse culture laid on them by central government and fear the potential for punitive litigation over the most trivial errors or accidents.

Contrast this with our Asian competitors, who are not subject to authoritarian health-and-safety tsars, whose hordes of inspectors dictate when people can or cannot climb ladders, or for that matter, toss a lifebelt to a drowning man.

Don't get me wrong, I am all for looking after people and keeping them safe - within reason, that is. But I come from a culture that says: if you are not taking risks - failing and having occasional accidents - then you are not trying hard enough.

The trick is to avoid any really serious incident or damage. But that is the role of the manager and mentor - to look after their people, to judge what is a reasonable risk.

Risks, accidents and failures are vital elements in progress and the success of any venture. But they now seem to have been largely removed, or suppressed, in our companies and institutions to such an extent that people feel they have to climb mountains and sail the oceans for excitement. What a shame and what a disabler.

So who are these health-and-safety tsars? It appears we have ex-policemen dictating how ladders can be used and how scaffolding is erected. These people have studied accidents and statistics, but never actually performed the task.

No wonder we have a no-risk-is-acceptable culture disabling our society. But I suspect it goes well beyond these probably well-intentioned people.

Check out this quote from the Health & Safety Executive site about myths:

A well-meaning head teacher decided children should wear safety goggles to play conkers. Subsequently some schools appear to have banned conkers on 'health and safety' grounds or made children wear goggles, or even padded gloves!

Realistically the risk from playing conkers is incredibly low and just not worth bothering about. If kids deliberately hit each other over the head with conkers, that's a discipline issue, not health and safety.

Government might just be on the right track to create a safe environment at work and play, and it may be the local implementers who are the cause for complaint.

It might all be the fault of the jobsworth folks who never take a risk. I can't tell, it is far too complex. But I can't help wondering why the government has to devote so much time and money to heath and safety.

So I choose to ignore it all. I take risks, calculated risks, all on the basis of common sense and my training in engineering and science.

And so I have the occasional accident and will show you a scar or two if you ask. But you know what? It sure is exciting and I keep making progress.

Perhaps this policy of mine will one day see my life come to an abrupt and unscheduled end. But I'd sooner depart this life on a wave of excitement and discovery, shouting, 'What a ride!', than be involved in an accident with my in-tray that sees me depart with a long groan as the paper cuts off my air supply.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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