There is Always a Risk Trade Off

There is Always a Risk Trade Off

Guest Post by Dr Robert Long

As much as we wish that life were simple, it isn’t. Indeed, when it comes to risk and safety, we found out from the SIA Report into the status of OHS in Australia in 2010, that safety was a ‘wicked problem’ (

‘Tame’ and ‘wicked’ problems are a concept developed in the late 1960s by two professors from the University of California, Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber. They developed the concept to address the complexity of attempting to resolve social policy issues. ‘Tame’ problems can be readily defined, there is a structured process to use to resolve them, and it is clear at the end of the process if the problem has been solved. Examples of tame problems are solving a mathematical equation, a chemist analysing the structure of a compound, or a chess game. Tame problems can be complex, but the outcome is clear. ‘Wicked’ problems on the other hand, are inherently difficult to define, there is a lack of direct correlation between actions and outcomes, and it remains uncertain as to whether the problem has in fact been resolved.

It is interesting that when we try to solve problems simplistically and in isolation, that we create by-products that are either ‘shifted’ or ‘hidden’ till later. For example, when we try to solve safety culture problems with excessive bureaucracy, like the development of the Federal Safety Commissioner, we create a whole new subculture of resentment and ‘tick and flick’. On the surface it appears like the problem is solved yet, under the surface, a whole new problem develops. This has certainly been the case with the development of bans on plastic bags in my city.

Plastic shopping bags were banned in Canberra on 1 November 2011. The motive for the ban was most ethical: to reduce landfill, pollution of waterways and protect wildlife. As a result a whole new stream of money was made in the making and sale of reusable bags. It was not long till mid 2012 that most people in Canberra had become accustomed to the ban and were keeping reusable bags in the boots and rear of cars. So far, so good. However, here is the by-product and trade off. It turns out in a recent study from the University of Pennsylvania that this practice has resulted in a new health risk and subsequent fatalities (

The consequence of keeping reusable bags in the boot or rear of cars is that such environments are a breeding ground for E.coli. The boot and rear of a car, especially a warm and dark place, are a wonderful breeding environment for dangerous bacteria. So bags that were used for vegetables, meat and other consumable products can become dangerous. Especially as they are not washed after use and are then reused.

The study focused on a plastic bag ban in San Francisco and compared instances of deaths for food related illness across counties without a ban on plastic bags. The results showed a spike in deaths and emergency room visits from the day the plastic bag ban commenced. The increase in food related deaths and illness was 50%. So, it looks like the environmental solution that was simple has a very dangerous by-product. So is the next solution just as simple? Just wash the usable bags. Not so fast. There are more trade offs, the washing of reusable shopping bags will have adverse environmental effect such as increased use of detergents, water and energy, thereby cancelling out the environmental idealism of the plastic bag ban.

Despite this complexity, it is most likely that Canberrans will accept the new health and fatality risk with the banning of plastic bags. Or, they may lobby to reinstate the use of plastic shopping bags or wash the bags and accept the environmental trade off. The opposition political party has already promised, that if they are elected, the ban will be rescinded.

Whatever the result, this story illustrates the way that management of risk works. So, if you hear some story about a simple solution to a safety problem, just wait, it will only be a matter of time before the by-product will become visible and then the value of the trade off will be realized.

Do you have any thoughts? Please share them below