Sunday, 26 February 2012

What if the HSE ran the DfT?

As someone who had some H&S training and responsibilities in a prior life I would like to apply some of that thinking to the cyclesafe debate.

The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 (HASWA) sets out some basics, Wikipedia sumarises them pretty well...

Duties of Employers
  • Provision and maintenance of plant and systems of work that are, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe and without risks to health;
  • Arrangements for ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable, safety and absence of risks to health in connection with the use, handling, storage and transport of articles and substances;
  • Provision of such information, instruction, training and supervision as is necessary to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety at work of his employees;
  • So far as is reasonably practicable as regards any place of work under the employer’s control, the maintenance of it in a condition that is safe and without risks to health and the provision and maintenance of means of access to and egress from it that are safe and without such risks;
  • Provision and maintenance of a working environment for his employees that is, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe, without risks to health, and adequate as regards facilities and arrangements for their welfare at work.

Duties of Employees
  • Take reasonable care for the health and safety of him/herself and of other persons who may be affected by his/her acts or omissions at work; and
  • Co-operate with employers or other persons so far as is necessary to enable them to perform their duties or requirements under the Act.
I hope that's fairly clear. For the purposes of comparison the employers is the authority in charge of the highway and the employee the user of the highway.

So the authority has to ensure the design, construction and maintenance of the highway is safe and the employee has to use it responsibly.

The next thing we would need to do is undertake a risk assessment. We know that ~3000 people die on the roads each year but it would be useful to know the rate at which they die to help us to know where to allocate resources.

This tells us how many deaths per billion vehicle miles, but due to greatly different average speeds it's not that helpful so by using some guesstimated average speeds I've converted it to an average based on time exposed to danger
  • Pedestrians - 37 per billion miles at 3mph = 111 per billion hours
  • Cyclists - 36 per billion miles at 12mph = 433 per billion hours
  • Motorists - 3 per billion miles at 30mph = 90 per billion hours
From this we see that cyclists are the most at risk of the main different types of road user (this is comparative data, I'm not saying cycling is dangerous). We might then decide that protecting cyclists should be given a proportionately higher priority due to this higher risk.

Next we'd go on to look at how we might reduce the risk to cyclists for this we would turn to the hierarchy of risk control

Hierarchy of Control

The beady eyed amongst you might notice (with a wry grin) right away that PPE is at the bottom of the hierarchy, due to it's ineffectiveness and reliance on mitigation rather than prevention.

Let's briefly run down the hierarchy and try and apply its teachings to the public highway

I don't think it is either desirable or practical to eliminate all motor vehicles from the highway but we could certainly eliminate some journeys, close off more roads from motorised traffic or even reduce available parking spaces. Alternatively it could mean the elimination of cohabitation, by providing roads for non-motorised vehicles we eliminate the hazard, we could call these cycle lanes!


Through a system of positive and negative incentives people can be persuaded to change their mode of transport. A very simple example would be the tax system as money talks better than most incentives. 

  • A positive incentive might be an incentive for using cycles while commuting as I have discussed previously
  • A negative incentive might be an increase to the marginal cost of motoring by scrapping VED and applying the cost to fuel duty, this would raise the cost of a litre of fuel by 10p
I don't think it would make a huge difference but it would have an effect.

This is probably where most of the work can be done, cycle lanes, redesigning junctions, traffic flows, traffic lights, good engineering solutions won't let people make mistakes. From the HSE's guidance

Separate the hazard ... by methods such as enclosing or guarding dangerous items of machinery/equipment. Give priority to measures which protect collectively over individual measures.
There we find something the HSE is very keen on collective protection, it's good because it is usually fit and forget, if you want to protect people working at height you fit safety nets rather than relying on individuals to use their fall restraint harnesses correctly. Similarly, you build a segregated cycle lane rather than relying on drivers not to hit cyclists and pedestrians.

Administrative & Behavioural
Begin with training, tell people how they need to behave, provide laws and regulations as a framework, then provide supervision and discipline. This comes towards the ineffectual end of the hierarchy because it is largely self policing, drivers aren't constantly supervised so we have to trust them to behave well.

Personal Protective Equipment
At the very bottom of the hierarchy is the thing so many people seem to think is the answer to cycling casualties. Here's what the HSE have to say about PPE 

Only after all the previous measures have been tried and found ineffective in controlling risks to a reasonably practicable level, must personal protective equipment (PPE) be used.
The two types of PPE associated with cycling are
  1. Hi viz clothing. The need for hi viz clothing just proves all the other parts of the hierarchy have failed. The risk has not been eliminated, substituted or engineered away, the cyclist is still placed in a risky area, and administrative solutions have failed because drivers don't concentrate enough to see a cyclist not wearing hi viz.
  2. Helmets. Anyone who suggests helmets are the primary way to prevent cyclist injuries has obviously never had their granny tell them prevention is better than cure. As a cyclist I'd rather not get hit in the first place than rely on a helmet to protect me. Unfortunately, because the risk hierarchy is almost never implemented by road designers, I do have to rely on one.

The other side to this is what the HSE calls reasonably practicable, would it be reasonable to spend X to prevent Y. Would it be reasonable to spend £1m to redesign a junction to prevent 1 cyclist death? I'll look at that next time.

Edit: Part II available here


  1. Brilliant assessment!

    I agree with everything except the section on substitution. This is exactly what Travel Plans aim to achieve, and often do so successfully. A reference to this would make a good piece even better.

  2. You've articulated this well. About 10 years ago the HSE produced a paper on 'the road as a workplace' whihc put a lot of road risks into the H&S perspective. The work group was chaired by Royal Mail, who vy with Network Rail and BT as the UK's largest fleet operators, and thus those with the highest cost in vehicle damage and claims.

    Around a third of KSI in road stats are related to road use 'at work' and this was around 10% of KSI reports for workplace KSI. Driving extended distances and times is a key factor, and driving over 25,000 miles/year delivers the same risk of bing involved in a fatal incident as working in a subterranean mine. A few responsible employers has taken this into their H&S policy as a duty of care by setting very specific limits on driving to a work site AND doing a day's work. If the task cannot be done without an extended driven journey than an overnight stay or other arrangements must be made.

    I can immediately call to mind 3 fatalities of innocent third parties through drivers attempting a full day of work and journeys of 3-4 hours to & from the worksite, and this time pressure drives the lunatic driving reported during the day. I prefer to do my driving at night when drivers are both professional and sanguine about making progress.

    Employers are also getting substantial pay-backs from training and monitoring their staff abilities in road use. A further detail is from one bus company operating solely in 30mph zones, who set their bus top speeds at 30mph, and delivered substantial reductions in driver stress plus reduced costs from minor crash damage.

    There are some bits of road where HSAW does apply - private roads, level crossings between stop lines and tramways. Fall off here and hurt yourself and the RIDDOR reporting regulations require the recording of a Dangerous Occurrence. Imagine if we applied RIDDOR across the roads network in its current state.

    HSE also highlights a further bivalency in how the construction industry operates. In London well over half the cycle fatalities are cause by HGV's and 80% of those incidents involve construction site vehicles. Once inside the site the hazards have to be accounted for - a banksman on foot to supervise the movements, and a risk assessment for the operation of the truck linked to a work plan (Construction Design & Management - CDM). Once outside - no obligation.

    The cavalier position on statutory protection and signage of road works is a further symptom of this malaise. Contractors fail more than comply in delivery of signage and safe diversions for pedestrians and cyclists, as required by Chapter 8 of the road signs manual and often fail to do this for motorists as well. Where are the prosecutions and reports?

  3. Great piece - have been thinking along similar lines but you've put it much better than I could. One thing I haven't seen mentioned here though is the liability aspect -- wouldn't it be great if those who set speed limits on particular roads, designed junction layouts, or took decisions about the scheduling of delivery & other heavy vehicles, could be held fully liable if somebody was hurt as a result. Less emphasis on blaming individual road users of any kind (provided they're operating within the law, at least), and more on the authorities who told them it was OK to drive at 30mph down a residential street, or the managers who scheduled ten pickups in a day forcing HGV drivers to rush from a to b.

    Substitution, from the HSE point of view, is an interesting one here. If we think of transport in terms of tools for a job - some of them powered, some unpowered - it's clear that a lot of employees are using a tool that's very much heavier & more powerful than the minimum needed to carry out the job. Which, from the employer point of view, ought to be considered highly undesirable - you don't want your workforce using petrol chainsaws for every job, if much of the time a light hacksaw will suffice. You could make a similar analogy in relation to public transport - equip each worker with arc-welding gear, or have a couple of specialist, trained arc-welders at one end of the factory floor that people can give the work to when it's needed.