Drones, rugby tackles and smallpox: risk in the news
Friday 18th March 2016
Other months may be less busy, but the spurs that propel such topics into the public realm guarantee a continued supply.
One of these is the interface between technological innovation and the vagaries of human nature; people acquire new devices and find improbable ways to use them. Hence the calls for tighter restrictions on domestic use of drones and, more curious still, laser pointers. (I can't have been the only one whose belief in the goodness of humanity suffered a knock at the news there were 1,440 reports by pilots in 2014 of people shining lasers into plane cockpits.)
Another dependable wellspring of topics for public debate is the search for an appropriate balance of risk exposure and benefit to society. The request by a group of doctors to remove tackling from rugby for the under-18s stems from their desire to prevent juvenile concussions. They predict 100,000 of these injuries a year if the Rugby Football Union achieves its aim of getting one million UK children involved in the sport. But that protective instinct rubs up against our desire to give children a rounded upbringing -- and to breed the next generation of winning players.
A higher-stakes example of the same dichotomy came last month from an attempt by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to frame international policies for gain-of-function (GOF) research, in which biologists tweak potentially pandemic strains of viruses to boost their infectious capabilities.
On one side of the scales sits the fact that such research can yield valuable insight to help control naturally-occurring pandemics. On the other, the concern it creates a stock of worse biohazards than we have ever known.
(Fans of the precautionary principle have highlighted the recent discovery in a dusty cupboard in Washington of a forgotten batch of smallpox -- previously thought to be globally confined to two well-guarded labs in Atlanta and Russia.)
Wherever you stand on the individual issues, their airing in the media is surely a good thing. Public discussion about risk evaluation and control gives us an alternative dialectic to the hackneyed one about "health and safety gone mad", and can only raise understanding.
These matters might have made the news in previous years but they were outweighed by chaff about over-zealous local authority officers banning this or that. That meme, briefly stoked by the last coalition government, looks as though it is on the wane. But even if that is wishful thinking, other, better informed coverage provides some balance. News coverage of the Air Accidents Investigation Branch's report on the Shoreham Airshow crash concentrated on the organisers' deficient risk assessment in a way that would have been unlikely a few years back.
For OSH professionals, more coverage and more intelligent reporting of safety and health issues can only be beneficial if it translates into more people coming into workplaces with even a slight knowledge of the language and principles of risk management.