Attitude to risk makes disaster

January 5, 2001

Man-made disasters such as the Hatfield train crash, which has brought chaos to Britain's railway network, are a symptom of poor risk management, researchers have concluded.

While company strategies and media attention have focused on the financial side of disasters, the way people and systems are managed within an organisation - operational risk management - is the real root of the problem.

Clive Smallman, senior research associate at the Judge Institute of Management at Cambridge University, has analysed how risk management has been handled in a variety of cases, including the Hatfield crash, the BSE crisis and problems in the National Health Service highlighted by the Bristol Royal Infirmary inquiry. His findings are published in the Leicester University Scarman Centre journal, Risk Management.

He said: "There has been too much focus on the financial and legal side of disasters such as Hatfield, where it has sometimes been assumed that other processes will look after themselves. In reality, at the heart of these crises are failures of processes and, fundamentally, of people."

The Hatfield crash was largely down to "faulty thinking" by Railtrack managers who failed to see the risk of not replacing tracks as soon as the materials were on site, he said.

"We all know they have to make money," Dr Smallman said, "but they need to take a different view of people within the system. There has been a division between the hard scientists and the social scientists on these issues. The latter have been saying that just because you may have the technical side right it does not mean you can afford to neglect the human side, where the biggest problems can occur."

The BSE crisis is an example of this type of problem, he said. It was the way government management systems worked, rather than the science behind detecting the disease, that made BSE a crisis.

"If there was more of a focus on operational risk management within organisations, there would be a reduction in the number of man-made disasters," Dr Smallman said.

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