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Safety regulation, supervision and enforcement

In a variety of UK industries, the operating organisations have become increasingly independent as a result of changes in that industry. These changes take a variety of forms including structural, ownership, and/or regulatory. However, in many cases, the changes have not been accompanied by the supervision necessary to maintain safety. Regardless of the motivation and arguments for and against the changes, there now appears to be a gulf between safety standards in different industries. It seems to me that this is a significant dereliction of duty on the part of those responsible for the changes.

In some industries, safety is managed reasonably well, while in others it is not. The differences are fairly straightforward to explain, but seem not to have been understood equally across different industries.

If I drive a car, a variety of criteria are required to be met; many of these criteria have been specified with safety in mind. Some relate to me, as the driver, and some relate to the vehicle. I must be licensed, be insured, be sober, be wearing suitable eye correction if necessary, and so on; the vehicle must be MoT tested (if older than 3 years), it must be roadworthy in many respects (tyre condition, cleanliness of windscreens, number plates, etc; level of washer fluids, lights working) and so on. There are organisations of people authorised, in various capacities independent from me (the “operating organisation”), to inspect these criteria. If I or my vehicle fail to meet any of these conditions, I can be legally stopped, on the spot if necessary, from operating the vehicle.

The same applies to operation in other transport areas: by road, by air, and to a lesser extent by sea, whether the operation is private or commercial.

Similarly, if a company is operating a building site, an airport, an oil rig and a wide variety of other operations then there are safety inspectors who, in many circumstances, are empowered immediately to shut down operations which are being operated unsafely, whether due to inadequate quantity or quality of equipment, personnel, systems or procedures.

The organisations which perform these supervisory functions are many and various. In some cases, they are completely independent from operating organisations. In other cases, there are individuals who are employed by operating companies and who are qualified to perform regulatory functions; while this might lead to conflicts of interest, it can work satisfactorily provided their allegiance to the regulatory body is stronger than that to their employer. A motor mechanic who is trained, qualified and authorised to carry out MoT inspections is no more likely to wish to endanger that qualification at the behest of his employer than is a Type Rating Examiner employed by an airline; and the regulatory body would back that person to the hilt in a correct interpretation of the rules.

Unfortunately, there are industries in which this seems not to be the case, in the UK, at least.

One industry which has clearly been operating unsafely with virtually no supervision is the banking industry. It is unclear to me how the public is expected to belief that a repetition of the current disaster can be avoided without proper safety regulation, supervision and enforcement, as well as complete separation between organisations providing low risk general purpose banking services and hose providing high risk speculative investment.

Another industry with insufficient supervision appears to be the railway industry. A few years ago, when we had a spate of rail accidents, it transpired that the operating companies could delay maintenance on sections of track indefinitely if they wished, even if the track did not meet any normal specifications. There is apparently no concept of a permit being required to operate each section of track, with permits being issued for a specified period of time and based on independent inspection of the track (as is required, for example, for my car); personally, I was very disturbed to learn this!

As yet another example, the medical industry stands out as being completely unmanaged in this area. While the required procedures and number of staff might be specified for the safe operation of everything from a bus, to a aircraft, to a swimming pool and a building site, it seems that a hospital ward or operating theatre has no such constraints. While in other fields, an inspector could visit unannounced and shut down an unsafe operation, can it really be true that a hospital ward is subject to no similar sanctions? Also the regimes for the investigation of incidents, both in the short and long term, vary widely between areas. As I understand it, school teachers are required to inform the social service authorities if a child has a couple of suspicious looking bruises, and parents can interrogated as a result; yet patients on hospital wards or in operating theatres can be subjected to very serious outcomes including death for many years, without any supervisory authority finding out about it.

Tonight, I think that I learnt from the Channel Four program, Dispatches, that nurses are much more likely to be dismissed for breaking the rules by using an email facility for private purposes than for failing to report that patients were dying needlessly. On the contrary, they are more likely to be dismissed for reporting that!

My general conclusion from this is that the separation between the silos in which these industries operate is dangerous. The effect is that different industries learn very little from each other. In particular, when governments change the structure of industries such as has occurred in the UK in the railway industry and, it seems, in the healthcare industry, it is also completely unacceptable that proper consideration of these effects is not taken.

However, it is difficult to be surprised by any of this, because in the UK we have allowed our elected representatives to blur completely any meaningful distinction between the executive and the legislature, increasingly to subject the police and the military to political influence, but, hopefully, not yet to have managed to exert significant consequential influence over our judiciary.

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