Accidental focus on Britain

Accident and Design
October 31, 1997

This book is a continuation of the final chapter of the 1992 Royal Society report on risk, titled Risk Management. Christopher Hood and David Jones felt that the material contained in this chapter offered ample scope for further discussion.

The book is divided into seven distinct sections, each focusing on an area of debate raised in the report. These sections contain an introduction by the editors, followed by two or three chapters by well-respected researchers setting out the different perspectives on an issue (for example anticipation versus resilience, absolutism versus blame, and the feasibility of institutional design in risk management).

On the whole the book is likeable. It reads well and it is thought-provoking. The debate sections are well edited and focus on specific topics. For example, in the section on the role of quantitative risk assessment in risk management there are two intriguing papers, one by Adrian Cohen (formerly of the Health and Safety Executive) lauding the importance of quantitative risk assessment in modern society, and another, by Brian Toft of the insurance company Sedgwick, delivering a devastating critique of it. Readers are, however, left to draw their own conclusions.

Another section that is particularly useful is the discussion of cost in risk management. Tom Horlick-Jones, of the University of Surrey, argues for a proactive risk management strategy as it not only saves lives but also boosts morale in the workplace. This is countered by Christopher Foster, of Coopers and Lybrand, who takes a neoclassical economist perspective, arguing for strict cost benefit-analysis in all regulatory decisions, as "excessive investment in safety may reduce the competitiveness of British industry by comparison with its overseas competition, to the extent that it is both unfair and unreasonable".

The mix of contributions is another reason to commend the book. About one third of the papers are written by individuals outside academia. The perspectives of practitioners such as Toft and Foster certainly enrich the debate.

However, the book lets itself down on two counts. First, the title gives little idea of the contents and may not attract the attention of practitioners for whom this could be a most useful book, or of readers who do not recognise the authors. Secondly, and more important, the book is dominated by British perspectives. It fails to include either a European or an American contribution. The debates could have been enriched by contributions from researchers such as Ortwin Renn, of the Center for Technology Assessment in Baden Wurttemberg, who is working on trust, democracy and competence (this would have been a good follow-up chapter to the one by Nick Pidgeon), or a piece by the American judge Stephen Breyer, who is examining the importance of risk assessment and the peer review process.

The lack of non-UK perspectives is also reflected in the biblio-graphy. Most of the references are to UK work or researchers. This is perhaps a more serious flaw, as several of the debates in the book have been discussed at length elsewhere. For example, American work on quantitative risk management, such as that by William Ruckelshaus, former head of the US Environment Agency, and the 1994 National Resource Council's report, Science and Judgment in Risk Assessment, are both sadly missing.

These omissions mean the reader cannot assess the full range of some of these issues. The book should therefore perhaps more accurately be subtitled "Contemporary debates in UK risk management". This would be perfectly understandable given that the book is focusing on the Royal Society report. However, even with this caveat, I would recommend this book to academics (it will be especially useful to masters students), as well as to UK-based practitioners, policy makers and consultants.

Ragnar Lofstedt is lecturerin social geography, University of Surrey.

Accident and Design: Contemporary Debates in Risk Management

Editor - Christopher Hood and David K.Jones
ISBN - 1 85728 598 0
Publisher - UCL Press
Price - £14.95
Pages - 253

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