Don't trip on the red tape

June 4, 1999

Universities' obsession with safety is ridiculous and time-wasting, argues John Adams

What do Routemaster buses, the Serpentine swimming club and university field trips have in common? They are all threatened by a bureaucratic obsession with safety. The bureaucracy's appetite for risk assessments appears insatiable. The risk assessment manual of my college, which is typical of those in British universities, says it is "a legal requirement that a risk assessment be made for all work activities". "All" is a daunting challenge, but we do our best. Among the hazards students doing field work are now warned about is fences. What is the "associated risk control measure" for dealing with fences? "If working close to fences avoid working with your back to the fence, in case you back into it."

Attempting to imagine every conceivable risk is an entertaining intellectual game, but it is increasingly one everyone is obliged to play - even when they have better things to do. Why? Education is already remarkably safe. A student is about 160 times more likely to die in an accident outside education than inside. Among safety experts a risk of less than one in a million is regarded as negligible. Over the past six years the risk per year of a student being killed accidentally while in, or supervised by, a school or university was one in two million. There is no limit to the money, time and opportunities that might be spent making it safer.

In the past six years there have been 48 people killed in accidents in education. They were all bizarre one-offs - a mentally impaired child swallowed a pair of latex gloves, a university employee tested a go-kart in the car park...

There is no pattern on which to build further systematic precautionary measures. There is even evidence that the current safety overkill is killing: two of the 48 fatalities were students on courses run by the Health and Safety Executive. The 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act requires only that we take precautionary measures "so far as reasonably practicable". The courts have provided a helpful interpretation of this phrase: it "implies that a computation must be made in which the quantum of risk is placed in one scale and the sacrifice, whether in money, time or trouble, involved in the measures necessary to avert the risk is placed in the other; and that if it be shown that there is a gross disproportion between them... the person upon whom the duty is laid discharges the burden of proving that compliance was not reasonably practicable."

There is a gross disproportion between the quantum of risk society tolerates outside universities, and in. But still we are required to demonstrate a gross disproportion between the residual risks that lurk in our universities and the sacrifices we are making to avert them. And there's the rub. No one is reckoning the sacrifice.

The risk-aversion measures being imposed are expensive. In my department all our old noticeboards have been declared a fire hazard and are being replaced by expensive and inconvenient noticeboards with fire-resistant plastic covers. No attempt is made to justify this sacrifice of money and convenience; the fire officer decrees and we obey.

But the largest sacrifices now being laid on the altar of zero risk are those activities that are being driven out of existence. Accidents occasionally happen when someone tries and fails to catch an open-platform Routemaster bus, but it is a risk I am happy to take in exchange for the rage provoked when stuck in a traffic jam ten feet from a bus stop with the driver refusing to release me.

In a recent Radio 4 essay Vikram Seth lamented the impending demise of the Serpentine Swimming Club, which is being driven to extinction by risk assessors' demands, despite the pleasure it has given over 135 years and despite the fact the risks taken are voluntary.

Less obvious is the research that does not get done by lecturers busy writing risk assessments. Accidents will happen: a zero-risk life is not on offer. There is no single metric by which to measure the quantum of the sacrifices demanded; but if they were collected for all to see, there would be agreement that they far exceed the safety benefits. We might conclude that we do not have enough accidents.

John Adams is professor of geography at University College London.

* Are safety measures grossly disproportionate?

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