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

Possible cancer cluster at fish hatchery

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For several weeks News Limited papers have reporting weird goings on around a fish hatchery in Queensland.  In a small area of Cooloothin Creek people living on properties neighbouring the Sunland Fish Hatchery have been noticing an increase in cancers.  The latest victim is a hatchery foreman who has been diagnosed with bowel cancer.

The issue has been bubbling along since a two-headed fish larva was discovered around 11 January 2009.  On 26 January 2009, the foreman has formally requested an investigation into a cancer cluster.  The 26 January quotes cancer expert, Bruce Armstrong.

Professor Armstrong said the fact there was more than one type of cancer would normally militate against a cluster. But the deaths and health problems among chickens, horses and dogs — as well as the fish — were extremely worrisome. “Clearly, there does seem to be an ecological issue here,” he said.

He suggested an investigation could help determine if the agrichemicals posed a threat to humans.

Local residents produced a video about the issue of crop spraying which is available on YouTube.

This current case will increase the pressure on government’s for increased regulation of farm chemicals and delivery systems.

UPDATE – 28 January 2009

Queensland’s Primary Industries and Fisheries Minister Tim Mulherin has established a taskforce to investigate the Noosa fish abnormalities.  It’s first meeting will be on 28 January 2009.

It includes private aquaculture veterinarian Dr Matt Landos, who says the available  evidence points to farm chemicals.

According to a ministerial media release Dr Landos said

“I am extremely pleased that the minister is keen to progress this issue and welcome the opportunity to work with the minister and the State Government. We need to consider interim alternative chemicals and farming practices in co-operation with macadamia farmers, to provide improved safety for aquatic animals and sustainable macadamia production.”

The ministerial release also said  that

“claims of a cancer cluster in the area are a matter for Queensland Health to consider.

Queensland Health has said the need for an investigation into an alleged cancer cluster will be determined once specific information is received from the community about their health concerns.”

SafetyAtWorkBlog will be following the taskforce’s progress.

HR vs. OHS

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I have written elsewhere in SafetyAtWorkBlog concerning the silo mentality of managers in relation to human resources and OHS.  This weekend a reader posted the following comment on this blog:

“You are right about the divide between HR & OHS.  Fact is HR are the culprits of negligence, they exist to support Management.  Any one with a serious complaint thinks long and hard before sticking their neck out and going to HR…”

What struck me about this comment was that human resources was seen to be aligned with management whereas workplace safety was not.  A successful safety management system cannot exist in conflict with other management systems but how much compromise does OHS need to make to achieve an integrated management position?

I am sure that HR professionals would not perceive their position in the same way as above but I remember a colleague once saying that safety professionals were on the same level of influence to companies as hairdressers.  Perhaps OHS professionals are envious of the level of influence that HR professionals seem to have with senior management and say such things from bitterness.

At some time or other we all feel less than relevant to employers but  circumstances have a way of re-establishing relevance, sadly in OHS this is often and injury or a compensation claim.

I don’t believe that the disciplines of HR and OHS are incompatible but I have seen many instances in companies where the HR Manager sees OHS as divisive, particularly in the areas of stress and bullying.  I believe that HR professionals by-and-large have a poor understanding of how safety should be managed in companies but that is not necessarily the fault of the HR professional.  OHS professionals need to be far more analytical of their own actions and purpose within organisational structures and start being active.

Kevin Jones