Anti-gravity also known as non-gravitational field is an idea of creating a place or object that is free from the force of gravity. Symbolically represented by the image in the photograph, it is something which is more hypothetical than practical, given that all mass in the universe exerts a gravitational pull on all other masses.

In a similar way, measures taken to improve safety should, by definition, reduce risk. The safety cycle is most frequently: incident(s) occur; investigation(s) instigated; solution(s) identified; risk review(s) undertaken; measure(s) implemented; incident(s) frequency monitored. One of the principles we apply in the Process Safety Industry to help bound and quantify the risk review phase is ALARP.

ALARP is an acronym, which stands for As Low As Reasonably Practicable and emanates from an English Law case in the middle of the last century. The key passage in the ruling was that the defendant had an obligation to provide safety measures unless the cost of such measures was grossly disproportional to the risk reduction gained. In some of the safety reviews I chair, I sometimes crystallise this principle by introducing the ALARP step: a putative additional measure where the cost grossly exceeds the benefit. For example, in an explosives facility HAZOP, we proposed full plant automation at a cost of £3m as the ALARP step for the remaining 10 year plant running time. We were then able to compare this with the risk reduction gained (£10k/yr) to demonstrate ALARP.

So imagine my consternation on a bike ride in the English countryside yesterday to have something which should be as elusive as anti-gravity – an anti-ALARP measure. The image below depicts a new ‘safety’ measure at the entrances to a quaint village. Before the modification, the village inhabitants will have been protected by a 30 mph speed limit. The new measure creates a one vehicle wide chicane at both entrances to the village’s main street. As you can see, there is a SLOW directive painted on the road just before the chicane. No right of way has been established. Accordingly, drivers must now judge who should go first, creating confusion and significantly increasing the risk of accidents (injuries, fatalities etc). So, in fact, anti-ALARP – a measure which costs money and increases risk.

Of course, anti-ALARP does in fact exist in other spheres – the purchase of weaponry is designed to increase (or at least threaten to increase) risk to our opponents/enemies. But in the field of safety, it is an anathema. To have done nothing would have been safer. So how can we avoid these egregious situations. Let’s return to our quaint village measure and postulate the circumstances which may have engendered this scenario. Firstly, there were competing stakeholder drivers in the initial phases of the safety cycle – reduce speeding; fear of increased congestion; freedom of the road; protection of pedestrians. This could have led to a disconnect between the review intent (to reduce speed and therefore reduce accident rates/severity) and outcomes (a compromise solution which tries to address all the stakeholders drivers and, in doing so, increases the risk of accidents). Secondly, the party responsible for paying for and implementing the measure spent little time and effort in benchmarking to assess the impact of and drawing lessons from similar measures elsewhere. I live in a nearby town where they employ a similar but crucially distinct measure. There is a double chicane protecting a zone, which employs a give way to the vehicles inside the zone.

So, to me, the lesson is clear. When following the safety life cycle:

  • Ring-fence desired safety goals from contamination from other valid drivers
  • Cast you net widely to identify and examine potential solutions
  • Apply the ALARP principle to be able to defend the choices you have made (against more costly ones you have rejected)

safety chicane 1