Ragnar Löfstedt, professor of risk management, King's College

Source: on 2013-11-28 14:41:48

Regulation Ragnar Löfstedt, professor of risk management, King's College2 Louis Wustemann talks to the professor about his views on how his 2011 review has been implemented and what lessons his research into risk perception and communication has for workplace safety managers. Author: Louis WustemannCategory: RegulationRagnar Löfstedt's work in 2010 on his report for the government, Reclaiming health and safety for all, casts a strong shadow. It is the root of many of the regulatory changes still feeding through two years later. But the man himself seems to have kept a low profile of late. Since the one-year follow up review he produced in December 2012 on government progress with his recommended changes to regulations and guidance, he says he has carried on working behind the scenes, though he reveals he turned down a request last year for a third report from the then minister of state for employment Mark Hoban. Löfstedt's lobbying for a discussion forum to discuss evidence based policy making in the EU institutions ” a theme in his first report ” has paid off in an informal group in the European Parliament, chaired by MEP for South West England Julie Girling, which has met occasionally since September 2012 and discussed issues such as substitution of hazardous chemicals, the difference between risk and hazard and the precautionary principle. Girling is trying to formalise the forum by gathering the 40 members' signatures needed to turn it into an intergroup advisory panel funded by the parliament. “We are halfway there right now, so it's looking pretty good,” he says. His other risk awareness raising initiative closer to home has been less successful. Though he says he garnered cross-party support for the idea of a House of Lords select committee on risk, it has failed to gain approval so far. “That said, we are still trying to push this, trying to gain support from other lords, so we are not giving up on it,” he says. He was not impressed by the latest political pronouncements on health and safety. These came from the Red Tape Taskforce of business heads appointed by the prime minister. The group's recommendations for rolling back European law included scrapping the need for many small businesses to keep written risk assessments and Löfstedt says he fails to see any proper cost-benefit analyses behind such  proposals. “It's very unfortunate; it's more or less ideology,” he argues. “I have been trying to promote evidence based policy making and this does not help that cause.” Watching brief He has kept a weather eye on the way his 2011 recommendations are feeding into law and practice. Latterly, he has begun to worry about the pace of change, particularly the speed at which the revisions to, and consolidations and withdrawals of, approved codes of practice (ACoPs) are being enacted. “I just think it feels a bit rushed,” he says. “I don't think we should rush things through for the sake of timing. We should be able to push things through when we feel we have got them right, and that could take more time than seems to be the case.” The ACoPs, 15 of which will have been overhauled between June and the end of this year, are “a big thing to look into and we need to get it right”. That caveat aside, he says he strongly commends the HSE for the work it has put into making his proposals a reality. As such, he has little patience with the Department forWork and Pensions' current triennial review of whether the executive is fit for purpose, which comes on top of several previous assessments of the executive under this government and the last.  “HSE is reviewed out right now,” he says. “I think we should let them get on with what they are doing. They have an excellent record and they are doing a hard job in this climate.” Now he has largely stood back from the public arena, does he miss the political limelight? “Yes and no,” he says. “I very much enjoyed the meetings with ministers. The full and frank discussions with secretary of state Chris Grayling were good. I respected him and he respected me. “I enjoyed that buzz but it was hard work. What I didn't enjoy that much was being constantly lobbied by everybody. The phone was going mad with calls from folks from the left, right and centre; that was really tiring.” Under the influence We move on to a topic that has been the focus of little attention in previous interviews but which has accounted for the majority of his working life: risk perception and communication. I ask what factors shape an individual's sense of the degree of risk posed by any hazard. This is as complex as human psychology, he observes, and governed by almost too many factors to list, but he offers some examples. "It's very unfortunate, it's more or less ideology,” he says of the Red Tape Taskforce. “I have been trying to promote evidence based policy making and this does not help that cause” People are more afraid of unfamiliar than familiar risks: “That's completely logical. Why should we be afraid of familiar risks, because we understand them. But unfamiliar ones, of course we would be frightened by those, because we are frightened of the unknown.” “Similarly we worry more about technological hazards than natural hazards. Natural hazards we have been acclimatised to for thousands of years. “You know about floods if you live in an area that's prone to them and you know about eruptions if you live near a volcano. Technological hazards are newer and things we don't understand. Most people don't understand how nuclear power stations work. How do you split atoms anyway? Those are difficult things for us, of course we are going to worry about them more.” We are more likely to fear involuntary risks than voluntary ones, he adds, because voluntary risks, such as skiing, are risks we elect to take and we believe we can control them. Among involuntary risks, our perception of their gravity is strongly influenced by the “kill factor”, he says. People worry more about hazards that can kill many people than hazards that kill few: “So we worry more about safety in aeroplanes than cars.” + CV: RAGNAR LOFSTEDT Ragnar E Löfstedt is professor of risk management and director of King's Centre for Risk Management at King's College London. Until 2002 he was a reader at the Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey. He holds adjunct academic posts at Carnegie Mellon and Harvard universities in the US and is visiting professor at the Centre for Public Sector Research at Gothenburg University in Sweden. He is on the academic advisory board of the UK National Patient Safety Agency, and a member of the European Food Safety Authority's advisory group on risk communications. In 2005, he was elected a Fellow of the Society for Risk Analysis (SRA); in 2006 he was presented with the society's Outstanding Service Award. Löfstedt is the author or editor of 10 books and more than 90 peer reviewed articles and book chapters. He is the editor in chief of the Journal of Risk Research. Another strong influencer of how we evaluate degrees of risk is how much we trust the “risk imposer”, he says.  The Swedes are more trusting of nuclear power than some other countries' citizens because they have more faith in the competence of their energy generators and regulators. “That's good and bad, of course,” he notes, “because sometimes their perception may not be justified, but most of the time it is.” Age is a strong influence on risk perception. “I used to go driving 4x4s in the Mojave desert in the middle of the night in dry creek beds,” he recalls. “Would I do that now as a 49-year-old? Absolutely not. Over time, with experience, you change your perception. “People don't start smoking in their 40s; they start in their teens,” he points out. “And they think two things: that they can stop any time they want to and that they are indestructible, they won't get lung cancer. With age, people realise that's not the case.” Young people have much more of an optimistic bias, a term coined in the 1980s by Rutgers University professor of health psychology, Neil Weinstein. Out of mind We naturally misjudge risk relativities when we have insufficient or distorted information. This is often the case, he says, citing the way public concern is channelled by media coverage. “Look at chemical issues versus food issues,” he offers, noting that there has been plenty of recent coverage of the potential hazards of the estrogen mimicking chemical Bisphenol A in plastic bottles, provoking calls in the press to ban it. Read our previous interview with Professor Ragnar Löfstedt here There is far less consciousness of food poisoning hazards such as Campylobacter and Salmonella, though the former causes 110 UK deaths each year. “We have thousands of cases but no one talks about it. Why? Because newspapers don't discuss it.” This leads us on to the “availability heuristic”, described by the Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman, which suggests we estimate the probability of something happening based on how easily we can call other instances to mind, rather than how often it actually occurs. So we will overestimate rare dramatic events and underestimate more common but mundane ones. Kahneman's work with  Amos Tverskey on the cognitive biases that distort our judgements was seminal, says Löfstedt. “You cannot underestimate the influence of Kahneman on the field of risk perception,” he argues. “He shares that guru slot with Gilbert White.” White was a geographer who kickstarted the study of risk psychology with his 1945 PhD dissertation which examined why, when US Army engineers were spending more and more on flood protection, household flood damage claims were still increasing. It turned out the more effort that went into flood defences, the more people moved into the hazardous flood plains, because they believed the risk had been removed. To scale Anecdotal evidence is a great influence on our risk judgement, Löfstedt says. “I have these discussions with students, loved ones and friends all the time. They say 'My grandfather is 93 and has smoked all his life'. I say, 'you need to look at the statistics'. “Look at the numbers. Don't get distracted by small sample sizes or anecdotes. We need to counteract anecdotes with facts.” But he recognises that it is human nature to cleave to small scale, local examples and be numb to statistics. “People don't like numbers,” he admits. “What they like is comparisons. Put it into context.” But it is important to compare like with like: “The risk of using a mobile telephone is the same as the risk of drinking a cup of coffee, for instance. That's a good example because they're both voluntary risks. “Visual examples will hit home; people remember them,” he adds. “Look at the statistics for injuries in the workplace and develop visual programming that address those.” His other advice for safety managers trying to create a strong safety culture is familiar: “Engage the leaders. If the leadership buys into health and safety it trickles down. We saw that clearly in the interviews we did for my year-on review. I'd like to see CEOs saying health and safety is a top priority, because that also boosts morale, people think 'my boss cares about me'.” Into the trees When Löfstedt  was last interviewed by Health and Safety at Work 18 months ago, he spoke briefly about his love of forestry management. I ask how things are in his neck of the woods. “The forest is doing fine,” he says. “I have 900 acres of trees now. I spent 32 days in Sweden this summer, clearing 10 hectares, removing small birch to make sure the bigger trees grow better. I also cleared some spruce to make sure they grow nicely and planted 5000 trees. It's my pension in future and my passion at present.” The weeks spent every year alone, wielding a chainsaw far from medical assistance, reground him in real-time risk control, but there are always new things to learn. This summer's lesson, he says, concerned wasps. “Mid august I was sawing up a birch tree and I cut through a hornet's nest. Wood hornets. I went to cut and the whole nest just blew up. They all came for me: Bang! Bang! Bang! I just dropped the saw and ran 100 metres. Most were gone but I still had about five that got round the visor and were biting me. It was horrifying and not to be  recommended.” + READ ON Safety professionals interested in knowing more about risk perception should start with Kahneman's 2011 book Thinking, fast and slow, says Ragnar Löfstedt. “It's an easy read”. He also suggests a short piece by one of Kahneman's collaborators who helped found the “psychometric paradigm”. Paul Slovic's 1987 article in the journal Science sums up, among other things, how accidents can have a significance in the public mind way beyond their statistical importance. He also recommends Baruch Fischhoff's 1996 paper Risk communication unplugged, which lists all the ways scientists have mistaken how they could overcome distorted perceptions. For a wider grounding in the subject, Löfstedt says practitioners could graduate to the book the Earthscan reader in risk in modern society, 1997, which he edited.   Related articles: Interview: Professor Ragnar Löfstedt Interview with Geoffrey PodgerMan of letters: interview with Keith ScottIssue: HSW January 2014Industry: Catering and leisureChemicalsConstructionManufacturing/engineeringPublic servicesRetail and distributionTransportUtilitiesFinancial/general services

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