Nuvia Limited, a UK based engineering, project management and service provider, were selected by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA’s) judging panel as 2019 winner of their top award: the Sir George Earle Trophy. Their success reflected the judging panel’s praise for Nuvia’s consistent high performance in health and safety management, and their demonstrable continuous improvement, innovation and development. Judges were impressed by the board’s genuine commitment and leadership on health and safety, and the well-established use of cultural maturity models to monitor and guard against complacency.

Nuvia are the latest in a long and prestigious line of companies and individuals who have been recognised for making a proactive and significant impact on the safety of those in and around them. For preventing future injury and saving future lives. And this is no ordinary acknowledgement, for it is bestowed by an organisation, RoSPA, which has striven for more than 100 years towards its vision (Life, free from serious accidental injury) through its mission (Exchanging life-enhancing skills and knowledge to reduce serious accidental injuries).

Following a public meeting in Caxton Hall in 1916 it was decided to elect a London "Safety First" Council to tackle the "alarming increase in traffic accidents, and the direct connection therewith of the restricted street lighting which had been necessitated by the War conditions". The Council, which in time became RoSPA, launched its first campaign to change the pedestrian rule so that walkers faced oncoming traffic. As a result, fatal accidents caused by pedestrians stepping into the path of vehicles fell by 70 per cent in the first year.

Over the course of the 20th century, RoSPA led several other campaigns to address the unintended consequences of technological development, the most notable perhaps being the one in the UK to make the wearing of road vehicle seat belts compulsory. This was achieved by the then RoSPA president, Lord Nugent, adding and championing a late amendment to the 1981 Transport Bill; a late amendment which has, to date, saved more than 60,000 lives.

One of the things I admire about RoSPA is its seeming determination to look beyond our atavistic hero worshiping obsession, to identify and acknowledge those individuals and groups who take quietly bold action, at risk to themselves, to protect others from hazards. As was shared recently on this platform (accompanied by the picture story below) “People never get credit for a problem that didn't happen”. Or, to put it another way, for preventing a hazard becoming a consequence.

The ‘Hero’ Wikipedia entry says that ‘no history (of heroes) can be written without consideration of the lengthy list of recipients of national medals for bravery, populated by firefighters, policemen and policewomen, ambulance medics, and ordinary have-a-go heroes’. Of course, these people are brave, usually selfless and worthy of acknowledgement. However, they are being recognised for trying to prevent the exacerbation of consequence rather than the prevention of it. Over the eons of our long evolution as a species, we have been simultaneously excited and then relieved by such interventions (caveman spears lion thus protecting the tribe) while at the same time being unaware of (uninterested in?) those which may have quietly prevented a hazard from propagating (No, I can’t think of any either).

It appears that we are drawn to people who we see engaging with a consequence to protect others. This is the dynamic which has launched a thousand Hollywood movie plots. Indeed, the Canadian Cross of Valour (C.V.) "recognizes acts of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme peril". Which is all very well, except that it completely by passes those who react to the hazard before the crowd becomes aware of it. Nevertheless, appreciation is merited in both cases and the 3rd party benefit is greater in the latter.

The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents. Its stated mission is to "drive chemical safety change through independent investigation to protect people and the environment." One of the things I think it does particularly well is generate animations based on the outcome of some of their more significant incidents. Think Texas City, Formosa Plastics, Deepwater Horizon. Indeed, their video on the 2005 BP Texas City disaster, a process loss of containment and explosion on a refinery which caused 15 deaths (most in a nearby temporary portacabin), included the source of ignition, which was the exhaust of an idling diesel truck in the vicinity of the release. The driver, understandably, fled.

But what if he hadn’t. What if he, recognising the hazard, decided, at considerable risk to himself, to drive the truck away from the release, thus removing the potential source of ignition. What if BP had managed to address the release before it reached another source of ignition and the swift and brave action of the driver was noted by a colleague. What if BP had then decided to nominate the driver for one of the newly created CSB/RoSPA Process Safety Intervention Awards, part of which was the creation of an animation which recreated the path that led to the release, the likely impact of the intervention hadn’t happened and the names of the people who’s lives were likely saved (occupants of the portacabin).

Wouldn’t that have been counterfactually happy and satisfying ending?

intervention nawards