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Risky Business - April 2019

13 March 2019

Having a plan for the unexpected is always a good idea, but how far should you go asks Myles Francis?

I'M WRITING this column early on day two of the Cheltenham Festival with storm clouds swirling around. The racecourse have taken an early decision to go ahead with racing for the day as the forecast has mellowed from the originally predicted 50mph gusts. There’s a plan in place with both the racecourse and the broadcasters to deal with things if the weather does turn a bit hairy, as you would expect on an event of this scale. 

And this brings me on to the thrust of my musings. We often hear the saying “expect the unexpected” but how often is the unexpected, well, expected? Has this situation we find ourselves in really come out of left field? Or have we simply not planned for something which, given a bit of thought, should’ve been apparent?

When carrying out risk assessments we have to avoid being blinkered in our approach (see what I did there? Cheltenham... oh, never mind). We can’t simply look at things in “normal” operation, but also consider what happens when things don’t go to plan. What do we do if our outdoor event gets hit by 50mph winds? What’s the plan if we get a blockage in this piece of machinery? 

I’m sure that is self-evident for most if not all safety professionals, and we all do our best to take into account the reasonably forseeable problems which may effect our organisations. What can be tricky though is deciding just how far we go with our crystal balls. Wecouldbe hit by a meteorite, but are we going to put precautions in place for that? Of course not. We think about the likelihood of things happening and, when they are so remote as to be discountable, we do just that – discount them.

But we do have to be careful that our estimations of the likelihood are reasonable and, wherever possible, evidence-based. Just because we haven’t experienced something, doesn’t mean that it can’t or won’t happen. This is one of the fallacies of health and safety just being “common sense”. What one person considers to be common sense is coloured by their own experiences and prejudices. As safety professionals, we have to have our eyes and ears open to take on board the lessons from more than just our own bailiwicks. Always better to learn from other peoples’ mistakes, I think!

That said, we also have to be careful not to go overboard. This is where health and safety comes in for a kicking, and rightly so. If the consequences of something not going to plan are trivial, why are we spending time and effort in dealing with it? We have to remember the reasonably practicable balance, and not skew it too far in the direction of going over the top.

Having worked in the broadcast industry, there is the pressure coming from “compliance” where the broadcasters want to be seen to be doing the right thing. This results in situations such as having a presenter in a rowing boat in a shallow pond, three metres or so from the bank, and being forced to wear a lifejacket because, well, they are in a boat. But a proper risk assessment would show that the totality of the situation – shallow water, being observed by the crew at all times, short duration on the water, etc etc – does not justify the need for a lifejacket. I always encouraged productions that doing the right thing also mean pushing back against the pressure to go well beyond what’s reasonably practicable.

Anyway, the first race is imminent. Considering the weather today, I think I’m plumping for Brewin’upastorm….

Myles Francis is principal health and safety consultant at 1st Option Safety Group. For more information, visit www.1stoptionsafety.com 

Tel: 0845 500 8484