In a 2018 email exchange between the late entrepreneur and engineer Stockton Rush and divemaster/explorer Rob McCallum, as reported by the BBC (bit.ly/3RLqbvQ), Rush stated:
I have grown tired of industry players who try to use a safety argument to stop innovation and new entrants from entering their small existing market.
McCallum’s response was illuminating:
… having stood in a Coroners Court as a technical expert, it would be remiss of me not to bring this [danger] to your attention.
In a CBS news interview (bit.ly/3EXdV3X), Rush also stated that:
… there’s a limit. You know, at some point, safety just is a pure waste. I mean, if you just want to be safe, don’t get out of bed … At some point, you’re going to take some risk, and it really is a risk/reward question. I think I can do this [innovation] just as safely by breaking the rules.
We will never know whether this was just rhetoric or a more ingrained way of thinking. Stockton Rush and four others perished during the Titan submersible dive to view the RMS Titanic.
The conversation between Rush and McCallum highlights many issues. One is the shocking disregard for safety and the role of safety in innovation. Despite McCallum putting forward several arguments as to why breaking the rules was not an option, Rush was steadfast in his determination in ‘breaking the rules’ and disregarding the basic principles of physics and safety. There is a difference between being innovative by thinking outside the square and deciding which rules you will break in the name of innovation and recognition. Five people, including Rush, paid the price for his attitude. Sadly, these kinds of conversations are not unique – they play out daily in many workplaces.
Rush was right and wrong. Everything we do, from getting out of bed, working with hazardous chemicals, and even crossing the road, is not without risk. Life has risks. Every day we make hundreds of decisions based on the associated risk of activities. Yet, when it comes to managing workplace risks, workers and employers are often brought kicking and screaming to the health, safety and environment (HSE) table. Like Rush, many see safety as a barrier to innovation or that breaking the safety rules in the name of science and progress is okay.
Why negative attitudes to HSE?
Why and when do people decide to disregard safety advice and regulations? Where is the ‘point’ that Rush described? After all, we know that when some rules are broken, the results can be catastrophic. There always seems to be someone who considers themselves competent enough to not comply with the laboratory safety standards or health and safety regulations.
Safety professionals are often labelled ‘bureaucratic’, ‘safety cops’ and ‘petty’. In 2013, the UK’s Health and Safety Executive took an unusual approach by implementing a campaign to counter the increasing misinformation and incorrect application of health and safety requirements.
Is the problem that health and safety professionals focus so much on the requirements to meet strict workplace health and safety (WHS) regulatory requirements, key performance indicators and other prescriptive measures that we have lost sight of the impact of this on workplaces? Or is it that the body of knowledge that defines the health and safety profession has taken us away from understanding and managing specific hazards to operating in a mode of critical thinking, regulatory compliance and legal ramifications, rather than acting as the enablers we should be?
HSE consultants frustrated too
Health and safety consultants also get frustrated with the often-overwhelming bureaucratic red tape. In early 2023, the safety landscape changed when a health and safety manager was charged with breaching Queensland’s Workplace Health and Safety Act 2011 after two workers contracted Q fever. The prosecution was based on the health and safety manager’s failure ‘so far as reasonably practicable’ to develop and implement relevant policies and procedures to control the hazard and the failure to complete a risk assessment and implement the relevant controls. The ramification of this prosecution is a point of continuing discussion for the occupational health and safety profession. However, it is a reminder that as workers we have a responsibility to take reasonable care of our own health and safety while also ensuring that our acts and omissions do not adversely affect the health and safety of others.
The bottom line is that the health and safety consultant has a role in protecting employees from workplace hazards, and in assisting organisations to comply with regulations. There is no getting around the fact that the regulator expects to see completed risk assessments, standard operating procedures and worksite inspections. From a health and safety consultant’s perspective, if that is what the regulator wants, that is what the regulator gets. Health and safety consultants are the messengers. We are the ones who have to implement the regulations; we do not make the rules.
Reflecting on the ‘E’ in HSE
The point of safety is not the mandated WHS worksite inspections, risk assessments and hazardous chemicals registers. In 2011, the International Year of Chemistry, the OECD published a retrospective review, 40 years of chemical safety, covering roughly the same 40 years since the publication of Bretherick’s handbook. It was not about chemical innovations but was a reflection of toxic chemicals’ impact on the environment, humans and other animal species. Incidents such as the release of methyl isocyanate in Bhopal, India (1984), and the Sandoz chemical spill and fire in Schweizerhalle, Switzerland (1986), led to the publication of OECD’s Guiding principles for chemical accident prevention, preparedness and response in 1992, with the third edition published earlier this year.
The OECD’s book focuses on chemists such as Rachel Carson (1960s) and Rowland and Molina (1995 Nobel Laureates) for their work on DDT and on the health and environmental impact of CFCs, respectively. The OECD acknowledged their Environment, Health and Safety Division for its work with independent experts, government and policymakers regarding existing and emerging issues in the chemical safety arena and reflected upon the development of good laboratory practices, animal welfare process safety and risk assessments.
Despite the focus on chemical safety in recent decades, the world continues to see many incidents that could have been avoided.
In 2019, John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and A. Yoshino were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for developing a lithium-ion battery. Yet, in the past 18 months, Australia has seen more than 450 fires linked to lithium-ion fires. In New York City alone, more than 250 people have been injured as a result of lithium-ion battery fires. Government agencies worldwide are now tasked with assessing the risks and reviewing regulations associated with lithium-ion batteries. Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council have acknowledged that lithium-ion battery fires are incredibly challenging.
Leighton and Rush represent a dichotomy in health and safety. Leighton was an innovator and a safety leader concerned about worker and public safety. Not only did he consider the hazards, he respected them at a time when health and safety was in its infancy. Rush considered safety an obstruction to innovation. He disrespected the hazards and broke the rules. In doing so, he paid the ultimate price. Had Titan been rescued, would Rush have rethought his perspective on safety?
Every worker has the right to go home from work in the same condition in which they started the day. Every consumer has the right to a product that will be safe. Despite this and the abundant and sometimes frustrating regulatory framework, people still die at work or from diseases caused by exposure to hazardous chemicals. Hazardous chemicals involve some of the most complex safety hazards that workplaces have to manage, and the chemicals and their hazards need to be respected and understood. Chemistry and safety should fit hand in glove, and innovation and safety should work hand in hand. None of us is invincible.