Public safety – Do governments understand the risks?

Michel Houtermans 2014-10-09

A couple of weeks back a horrible accident happend in The Netherlands during a Monster Truck show. Three people died and several others where severely injured. Below is a youtube video that shows how the accident happened. The reason I show you this accident is because public safety and workplace safety are treated completely different in the real world. Look at the picture above, a case of workplace safety. There are big difference between the two situations.

Workplace safety – Safety first

When a worker joins a company then the employer is responsible for the safety of that worker. If an employee does not like the safety situation then he or she can always quit his or her job. In theory this works of course but in practice this might not be so easy. But, if a company does a serious job then they have all kind of hazard and risk analysis techniques in place, including job safety analysis.

Companies need to understand their hazards, the associated risks and whether they need to implement additional protection layers in order to protect workers against these hazards. I don’t think that a proper analysis has taken place if you look at the picture above. But, somehow they recognised the hazard and did something about it. They placed wooden beams to support the rock.  Whether it is a good and sufficient, i.e., a reliable layer of protection, cannot really be judged from the picture.

Companies in the western world are very much monitored by the government to work in a safe manner. Companies themselves want to work in safe way as accidents cost them a lot of money and loss of reputation. Industry has learned from accidents and gotten better, but still history keeps repeating. The non-western world is still struggling with safety for many political, financial, and other reasons.

Public safety – Risks understood Mr. Government?

If a public person visits a public (free or paid) event, like the Monster Truck, show then the person trusts that the government, who allows the show to take place, and the company, who organises the show, both know what they are doing. In the Netherlands the government needs to give a license for a show like this to take place. The Governments has rules on how to issue these licenses and I would assume that safety first is the most important element of the decision making process.

But, does the government know how to do a proper risk analyses? Does the government understand risk? Here I have big doubts. And I have these doubts, not with all, but with many governments around the world.

What is completely missing at the Monster Truck event is the concept of layers of protection. In this case the hazard is a Monster Truck. What can go wrong with the Monster Truck? It can get out of control and drive into the public and thus kill people. Any layers of protection between the Monster Truck and the public? Nothing. The crowed control fence does not count as a layer of protection of a hazard like this.

In the industrial world, in the Netherlands, a hazardeous situation without any layers of protection would be completely unacceptable.

Why is that?

The root cause in my opinion is that risk is not really understood. Everybody knows the word risk. But, not everybody knows what it means, let alone how to deal with it. Governments around the world do not always understand risk. Specially when it comes to risk to the public. Unfortunately there where they do understand risk it is because of events from the past. Our buildings are safer today because we have building codes based on past events. Our roads are safer because the government has learned from many accidents happening on the road. Public safety improved.

At Risknowlogy everything is risk based. Our company philosophy is that if there is no risk, you do nothing. If there is risk you implement reliable solutions. Sometimes these reliable solutions also need to be also safe solutions. What we would like to see is that everybody, including governments, take a pro-active risk based approach. First you think risk. Once you understand it, you know whether you need to do something about safety or not.

Dear Mr Government, you are responsible for public safety. Implement a risk based approach in everything you do and public safety will increase.

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