Cass Sunstein, Risk, Cost-Benefit and OHS – Part 2

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Part 2 of Risk & Reason book review from SafetyAtWork magazine 2003


Sunstein closes the chapter “Thinking About Risks” with a short reference to September 11 2001 with which he says that “acts of terrorism show an acute appreciation of the psychological phenomena..”

Throughout the book, there are snippets that can be related to safety management.  For instance, he writes of “dreaded deaths” with 3 points:

  1. People can adapt to suffering much better than they think they can.
  2. Some pain and suffering may well be an inevitable part of a desirable period in which people…can plan and adapt themselves to the fact of death…(p.66)
  3. The period of pain and suffering that precedes death ought… to be far less important… than the fact of death itself.”

These points relate to HIV and cancer principally, but can’t we obtain some constructive advantage from having our employees dread workplace or traumatic deaths?   First aid training often raises safety awareness because the First Aiders dread having to apply their skills.  We drive cautiously because we dread traumatic injuries to our family and ourselves.  Dread can lead to caution which leads to safe work.

Sunstein chooses not to deal with the relationship between risk and culture and directs us to “Risk & Culture” by Douglas and Wildavsky (1992).  It is fair to acknowledge intellectual limitations but the whole book operates through, predominantly, the concerns of the United States culture and values.  The cultural values of the US are not universal and some admission of this variation would have been useful, particularly given that the Douglas and Wildavsky book was published well over 10 years ago.

The illustration of eight propositions for cost-benefit analysis and government decision-making is very useful.   They support the integration of qualitative measurements and a broad application of “costs”.   One proposition is that “agencies should be required to show that the benefits justify the costs.  If they do not, they should be required to show that the action is nonetheless reasonable…” Accountability is now an essential element of all business areas.

Risk and Reason may prove to be invaluable to United States readers but information for others was difficult to extract.  (The testimonials on the dust jacket are glowing but are all academic, although one is from outside the US).   There is no obligation for writers to include readers outside of their own marketplace but on an issue like risk and in a context of environmental management, it is disappointing that the book does not acknowledge the global readership.   As mentioned above even very well known risk experts are not even referenced.   The book is parochial and does not acknowledge that international standards do affect the US legal system even if it is less than in other jurisdictions.  Environmental issues cross territorial boundaries and are becoming more involved with global legal structures and obligations.

Cass Sunstein has a good writing style and it is not difficult to read.  We can only hope that the publishers encourage Mr Sunstein to write a complementary book focussing on risk and reason outside the United States.

The best pathway to Cass Sunstein information and writings is through his listing at Wikipedia.  However, I did enjoy reading this article.

Comcare’s new role

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The scuttlebutt in some Australian OHS circles is that Australia’s Comcare agency will be given a major upgrade through the National OHS Review recommendations that is nearing completion.

Although the Minister for Workplace Relations, Julia Gillard, did not name the new agency that she intends to introduce through the Coalition of Australian Governments process, SafetyAtWorkBlog believes that Comcare will be upgraded to a fully functional national OHS authority.

Coincidentally, Comcare has begun promoting a series of national seminars for the month of March 2009.  According to the promotional blurb:

“During the seminar, participants will engage in workshops and listen to presentations from speakers from across the Comcare scheme as well as Comcare’s OHS Compliance Assistance and Prevention & Injury Management Services teams.”

If Comcare’s new status is announced prior to the seminars, I would suggest the seminars will be sold-out quickly.

Kevin Jones

Cass Sunstein, Risk, Cost-Benefit and OHS

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On 26 January 2009, the Los Angeles Times reported on the appointment of Cass Sunstein as the “regulatory czar” under Barack Obama’s presidency.  He is to be appointed the head of The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

In 2003 in the precursor to the SafetyAtWorkBlog, SafetyAtWork magazine, I reviewed Sunstein’s book – Risk & Reason, Safety, Law and the Environment.  Below is the first part of that review

SafetyAtWork magazine Vol 4 Issue 11 - 2003
SafetyAtWork magazine Vol 4 Issue 11 - 2003

So many safety professionals also have responsibility for the environment that Risk & Reason – Safety, Law, and the Environment seemed an attractive read.  This book is unashamedly North American and to some extent that is a discouragement but given that many innovations originated there, the book was worth a look.

From outside North America the issues of most relevance were those concerning risk perception and the role of experts.  Cass Sunstein states that

Before government acts, it should, if feasible, attempt to produce a cost benefit analysis, understood as a detailed accounting of the consequences of the alternative courses of action.  The cost benefit analysis should allow people to see if the problem at issue is small or large.  It should explore the expense of reducing the problem and explain who will bear that expense.  (p. ix)

He says that,

Some people think of cost benefit analysis as a form of cold, barely human calculation, treating health and life as mere commodities and envisioning government as some kind of huge maximizing machine.  On the contrary, I urge that cost-benefit analysis should be seen as a simple pragmatic tool, designed to promote a better appreciation of the consequences of regulation.  (p.ix)

I wondered whether what he considers cost -benefit analysis in the broadest sense.  His concepts fit with risk management and, of course, risk management is supported by various standards such as AS4360.

The trap with cost-benefit analysis is that decisions made are cold and barely human, which he acknowledges.  He uses the fuel economy standard as an example.

If, for example, proposed fuel economy standards will significantly reduce greenhouse gases but also lead to smaller and less safe cars -and thus produce over a thousand extra deaths each year – officials and citizens should be aware of that fact.  (P. ix)

Here is a crucial question for the book – what is the more important, the needs of the many, or the needs of the few.  In his introduction, he surprisingly uses an example of the Hatfield rail crash in the United Kingdom.  Sunstein discusses how people now perceive rail transport as unsafe and began driving to work, a far more statistically dangerous activity.  This example is proceeding well until he stumbles.  He says that

After the crash, people undoubtedly spoke with one another about their fears, creating a kind of cascade of concern about train safety. We shall also see that cascade effects can lead people to large-scale errors about risks. But government regulation, my principal topic here, was not involved. (p 2)

It is clear that Sunstein is not as well informed on Hatfield as is necessary to use the example. Government regulation, or deregulation, of rail transport has never sat well with the English rail traveller.  Hatfield confirmed fears encouraging people to alternative transport methods, ones over which they have direct control.  With train travel, you place your trust in the driver and the system. In automobiles, you feel in more control.

Sunstein makes three recommendations to government on assessing regulation through cost-benefit analysis:

  • “…attempt to assess the magnitude of any problem that it is attempting to solve, through quantitative assessments to the extent possible.”
  • “…attempt to assess tradeoffs, by exploring the costs of regulation, also in quantitative terms if possible.”
  • ”   attempt to use tools that are effective and inexpensive.” (p.5)

This process would be familiar to all safety professionals. We recommend the same process to improve safety:

  • Identify
  • Assess
  • Control

This book shows that there are many parallels between environmental regulation and OHS regulation. Sunstein says

“Properly understood, a cost-benefit state attempts to make people’s lives better. The effort to quantify and to balance is designed not to assess everything in terms of money but to promote close attention to the actual consequences of what government does.” (p.8 )

Chapter 2 is very much about risk perception but suffers from not drawing more on the large amount of safety risk perception analysis and terminology. Sunstein reaches the issue of risk perception from a different point of origin. He asks,

‘What are ordinary people thinking? Can we discern some structure to their judgments? Three beliefs seem to be playing a large role. First, many people believe that risk is an “all or nothing” matter. Something is either safe or dangerous, and there is no middle ground. Second, many people are committed to a belief in the benevolence of nature. They think that the products of human beings, and human activities, are more likely to be dangerous than the products of natural processes. Third, many people subscribe to the “zero risk” mentality, at least in some domains. Such people believe that it is both possible and appropriate to abolish risk entirely, a belief that appears closely connected with the notion that risk is a matter of “all or nothing.”‘ (p.36)

Sunstein discusses Outrage without naming it and by missing this concept narrows the relevance of the book and the authority of his voice. If he had looked at any of Peter Sandman’s work on Outrage, had looked to other scholarly fields, his work would have been more authoritative. Given that Sandman’s works originated from environmental and planning issues it is very surprising that there is no reference to them, particularly given that Sandman is also a United States academic.

Sunstein says that “a possible conclusion is that, with respect to risks, vivid images and concrete pictures of disaster can ‘crowd out’ other kinds of thoughts, including the crucial thought that the probability of disaster is very small.” (p.46) How much more interesting would it have been if he had incorporated Sandman’s Outrage principle and expanded upon it?

The next part of this review will be posted tomorrow.

How to talk safety

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Safety advocates often say that safety begins at the top.  Yet few CEO’s will talk overtly and publicly about safety to the extent that Janet Holmes a Court has in Australia.  Janet is a rarity but John Bresland of the United States Chemical Safety Board is making a good attempt through YouTube technology.

In January 2009, Bresland has produced on of CSB’s “safety messages” and, he is not afraid to criticise his political colleagues.

In the latest safety message he criticises those American states who do not allow state employees to be covered by federal OHS legislation and he uses an actual fatality incident to make the point very clear.

For those outside of the US, the video is a good example of a safety advocate putting his face out there and broadcasting about safety to his constituents and interested parties.  Political criticism is seen as valid in this case due to Bresland pointing out an anomaly and showing how an anomaly can kill, injure and maim.

Too many senior executives and professional associations are scared of making political statements even though they support the mission statement of their organisation.  This is an immature position based on insecurity – a quality that should have no place in the coordination of corporations and professional bodies.

Branding is a worthwhile process but it will only succeed if what is being promoted has substance.  The Chemical Safety Bureau has been a solid platform for education and safety improvement for years and deserves support by OHS professionals learning the lessons being shared and displayed.

Kevin Jones

New research on behavioral safety

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The New York Times (and other newspapers) reported on an article in the latest edition of the NSC Journal of Safety Research.  It is worth considering when the behavioural-based safety advocates come a-knocking.

According the media reports the article reports on “knowledge gaps” in research into behavioural safety.  It summarises the discipline, or alchemy depending on your experience with the advocates, very well.

“Behavioral safety” is becoming more popular as safety practitioners seek to better understand and develop strategies to prevent workplace injuries. Behavioral safety is the science of observing workers’ behaviors to determine where a different behavior or set of behaviors may have prevented or lessened the severity of injury. The study defines behavioral safety as an approach to improve safety performance through peer observations, goal setting, feedback, and celebrations or incentives for reaching safety goals.”

Thankfully it sensibly recommends that behavioural safety be applied as part of a broader safety management system.  In fact broader than many others suggest.  The study says that “psychological, social, engineering and organizational factors” should be considered and it acknowledges that how these factors affect behavioural safety is still poorly understood.  It suggests these areas for further research attention:

  • “Impact of behavioral safety interventions on rates of injury, illness and fatalities.
  • Appropriateness of the basic elements of behavioral safety across different industry sectors.
  • Relationship between behavioral safety and a greater safety culture.
  • Role of performance feedback in creating behavioral change.
  • Effectiveness of tangible and non tangible rewards on behavioral change.”

Some of these factors would best apply through research by the OHS regulators – a rare commodity – but they indicate some of the areas which OHS professionals should consider more carefully.

Clearly behavioural safety is still a developing area of study and application. It reinforces the position that behavioural safety is still not a panacea, regardless of the claims of spruikers.  Behavioural safety is one of the tools available to OHS professional and perhaps one that should not distract us from more effective and practical safety initiatives.

Kevin Jones