Why do we have safety standards?

Why do we have safety standards?

From: oleg_at_xxxxxx
Date: Thu, 10 Sep 2009 21:17:49 +0100
Message-ID: <34e3cd90c076e9e332da7945d2a88202.squirrel@xxxxxx>
After reading numerous recent discussions on the list it is interesting
to note how often individual standards are referred to and how often the
comments are not positive.

So i would like to take a liberty to pose a question (perhaps related to
the Ethical principles discussion initiated by Professor Ladkin): do
safety standards, by virtue of mere existence, do more harm than good?

There is evidence, admittedly mostly anecdotal, that safety standards
are being used by management of the companies to justify lesser degree
of assurance than safety engineers would be comfortable with.
There is further (anecdotal?) evidence that some of the contents of
these standards lack in engineering justification and that the limits of
applicability are not well-defined.
An argument can be made that consensus standards impede progress in
safety engineering as a discipline; that they reduce incentives for
commercial competition in terms of safety and promote lowest common
denominator in industrial practice. A further, rather cynical,
comparison can be made between principles and motivation behind such
standards and those behind "price fixing cartels".
Finally an argument can be made that many of the standards (whether
explicitly or by omission and whether intentionally or not) promote the
self-image as *the* recipe for safety and nurture the perception that
following their requirements will remove or limit the liability over
risks posed by the product or service being developed. (Are such
perceptions wrong in all jurisdictions?). Even more worrying is the (yet
again anecdotal) evidence that some safety engineers seem to believe
that their professional judgement can be "waived" by the standards.

All of the considerations above (even if anecdotal), should illustrate
that safety standards may be associated with some inherent risks. So
shouldn't we have a discussion on whether safety standards are necessary
before we discuss what exactly should they say?
- What is the safety engineering justification for existence of standards?
- What are the arguments that outweigh the risks illustrated above?
- What do these standards achieve that cannot be achieved otherwise
through far more abstract, less intrusive* and less risky means?
(*Perhaps based on introducing a generic criminal offence or a tort of
"exposure to undue risk". Perhaps supplemented by extremely abstract
regulation or, better still, judicial guidance on concept of ALARP (for
risks posed by systems/operations) and some similar concept (ACARP?) for
assurance / confidence in the safety case. Perhaps enforced by a
technically competent "regulator" whose role is closer to that of
prosecution service and/or specialised divisions of police.)

Is it possible that, to shamelessly paraphrase Steven Weinberg, "for
good engineers to do poor safety engineering - that takes a safety

It is quite possible the answer to these questions is obvious and i
somehow failed to understand it in the course of my education. But given
that so many recent discussions on the list have mentioned the
imperfections of standards, perhaps it is worth someone reiterating it
for the benefit of others like myself...


Oleg Lisagor, Research Associate
High Integrity Systems Engineering Group
Department of Computer Science
The University of York
YO10 5DD, UK

Phone:  01904 434728
Fax:    01904 432708
E-Mail: oleg.lisagor@xxxxxx
Received on Thu 10 Sep 2009 - 21:17:49 BST