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Safety must be balanced to protect freedom

20 November 2008

The Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has said people need to be given the correct information so that they can decide for themselves what risks they want to take. A quest for “absolute safety” was not feasible and would come at a cost to freedom, Tom Mullarkey said in his report to RoSPA’s annual meeting.

Safety must be balanced to protect freedom
Safety must be balanced to protect freedom

Striking the right balance was the key challenge for health and safety experts if they wanted to win the fight against “nanny state” accusations.

“The application of common sense and balance is much more reasonable than the seeking of mindless increments towards ‘absolute safety’, a destination which is neither feasible nor, in all probability, desirable, since it would come at such cost to our freedoms,” Mullarkey said.

“Accident prevention involves so many technical, legal and ethical issues, ultimately defining life and death, that there is no simple shorthand for explaining how the whole thing works for the benefit of the 60 million people who rely on it.”

Mullarkey said there were clearly areas where prescription, through regulation, legislation or standards, was essential. There were few who would not wish, for example, to have the most precise, prescriptive state safety control over the nuclear, chemical or aviation industries.

At the other end of the scale, information, education and advice needed to be provided so that people could decide what risks they wished to take. “Whether walking in the hills or mowing the lawn, people need to be able to get on with it themselves, ideally armed with the tools of knowledge and experience,” Mullarkey said.
“In the middle is the tricky bit – where to draw the line between intervention and laissez-faire. This is typically the area where the media, and the public, become most incensed with what might be described as ‘misplaced intervention’. Here is the crux – how to apply the proper balance of factors in order to exercise good judgement. Too prescriptive, and accusations resound of the ‘nanny state’; too casual and people would undoubtedly be forced to take unknowing risks.

“At RoSPA, we draw the line with two simple questions: Is the intervention proportionate to the risk? If the problem is not that great, steer towards the lighter touch, but if the evidence demands more guidance, consider intervention. And what would be the effect on others? Someone who puts only themselves at risk should have the freedom to do so; but if an act can kill or injure others, it must be proscribed or regulated. A solo mountain climber fits into the first category; a speeding motorist the second.”

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