Balancing risk with personal freedom

Managing partner, Park Health and Safety Partnership

In the coverage of the Formula 1 car race in Germany recently, there was a story that stood out almost as much as Lewis Hamilton winning again and taking the lead in the championship. 

Many of the drivers and some of the teams are lobbying for a new device developed by Mercedes, named the “halo”, to be fitted over the front of car cockpits. The halo is designed to shield drivers from pieces of flying debris, but opinions are divided; Hamilton was quoted as saying it should be optional and that he prefers to take the risk.

There is a contrast between apparent personal freedoms being curtailed “because of health and safety” and a society in which people generally feel so safe that they take it for granted and want redress when harm arises. 

This dichotomy can lead to risk-averse decisions of the sort pilloried in recent years by the Health and Safety Executive and referred to in shorthand as “conkers bonkers” – a reference to the myth that a head teacher asked his students to wear eye protection when playing conkers in the playground. 

We would much rather everyone celebrated how much safer workplaces in the UK have become in recent years.  But with accidents infrequent, what will be noticed is officious interference with the way that people wish to behave in their own sphere.

The role of safety and health professionals is to help their colleagues and organisations manage risks more effectively – that means both risk reduction and greater efforts to achieve it with less input, so that effectiveness and efficiency are valid aims. But there have to be limits; we don’t want handrails along all the footpaths across our countryside, up hill and down dale, just in case walkers stumble. We recognise that there is a crucial distinction between the workplace, where an employer has deliberately brought people together to work, and the public domain, in which people make personal choices.

Recent experiments have turned into permanent change in our towns and cities, where instead of fencing, or even raising pavement boundaries, cars and pedestrians are obliged to share the space. One of the best examples is London’s Exhibition Road, which runs past the Natural History, Science and Geological Museums and the main campus of Imperial College in South Kensington. 

Apart from constitutionally grouchy taxi drivers, most people seem to get on with the new arrangements well, and accidents and injuries have been substantially reduced as road users on foot or wheels have, of necessity, to take account of each other’s presence and adapt their behaviour. They actively manage the risks.

Our challenge is to do less to achieve more. How little do we need to do in the public domain? How much can we do in the workplace? For the former, the answer may lie in education and opportunities for young people to learn and understand risk. For the latter, there are still too many accidents and injuries and, above all, too much ill health. 

So I wouldn’t object if the halo for Formula 1 cars is introduced as an option, or if racing teams decided that, as the funders of millions in salaries, they were entitled to insist on its use. As long as decisions are informed, health and safety can only benefit from open discussions about whose risk to take, whose obligation to manage.


Lawrence Waterman OBE CFIOSH is managing partner at the Park Health and Safety Partnership, and was formerly head of health and safety for the London Olympic Delivery Authority. He is past president of IOSH.

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