The Cost of Safety

On 20th April this year, an accident on the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE) involving a lorry carrying 17 migrant workers and a stationary tipper truck left two of the migrant workers dead and the rest injured. In a separate incident soon after, 10 men were taken to the hospital after a traffic accident also involving a lorry. These two events sparked a heated discussion online about the safety of ferrying people on the back of lorries.

In particular, a portion of netizens were pushing for a complete ban of using lorries to ferry personnel. Peers of mine shared related posts on Instagram, hoping to raise awareness for the issue and persuade others to back their cause. Call me petty, but I personally felt that the posts were the result of blindly jumping on the ‘safety’ or ‘human rights’ bandwagon, without conducting proper research or adequately considering perspectives from other stakeholders.

Safety First?

The overused phrase ‘safety first’ has been rephrased many times, morphing into interesting alternatives from the good old ‘Safety is the No. 1 Priority’ to the classic NUS High School’s orientation’s ‘Safety is Paramount’ pun, where the word on top of the very familiar mountain in the Paramount logo is replaced with ‘Safety’. The words used might differ slightly, but most would instantly recognise the message behind it: safety first, and safety above all.

Having heard these phrases, few would second guess it. Safety is important, because our health here is at stake. People would be less inclined to participate in an activity or complete a task if the process is fraught with danger, which could have long-term consequences on our well-being. But is safety truly the first priority, with everything else second or less to it? If you think about it logically, the answer should come easily to you.

That answer is ‘no’. The reason is a simple one: If the number one priority is to be safe, then there would be no reason to complete a task which poses any amount of threat to our health more than everyday life. There would be no physical trainings or military exercises in the army, no construction in the city, no nurses taking care of the sick, no medical personnel vaccinating our population from Covid-19, and no progress in society. Hence, safety cannot logically be the first priority. Instead, I would argue that the first priority is to ‘get things done and seek progress’, an intentionally broad motive fundamentally crucial for society to progress.

Safety: A Cost-Benefit Analysis

Imagine that you are the CEO of AJ Hackett in Singapore, a company which conducts high element activities for the public, including the dangerously exciting bungee jump. In this case, your first priority of 'getting things done' and 'seeking progress' is perhaps maximising profits and expanding your business. Under that overarching theme of financial gain, there are several sub-priorities, or targets, to achieve. These include advertising, customer experience, and importantly, safety.

From the perspective of the CEO of AJ Hackett, safety is important not because you are closs to any of your customers and would feel horribly distraught if they were to pass away during the bungee jump, but because any injury or even worse death would deal a severe blow to your business and hence the overarching priority of 'profit and progress’. On top of that, unsafe practices alone will bring up some red flags for potential customers, disincentivising them from patronising your establishment.

With safety being a priority high up on the priority list, you have made your attraction a very safe one indeed! During your few years of being CEO, there have been 0 accidents at your attraction leading to severe injury or death. After these pleasently uneventful few years, it has come to your attention that you can implement a new system which makes your bungee jump a little bit safer. However, that system costs an additional $20 per jump, and you decide that the cost is too high for it’s benefits, and stick to the old hardware.

Is that the right decision to make? I’m not sure, but since you are the CEO of your organisation, whose life revolves around the company, I trust that you have made a sensible one. Furthermore, you possess all the information about the safety features and statistics of your bungee jump, as well as your company’s financial position, hence no one will be in a better position to make an informed decision than you.

When it comes to making policy changes concerning safety, there should always be a cost-benefit analysis for that change. A safety first approach is not always, or I would argue, not often the correct approach, because it overlooks other important aspects which contributes to the overarching top priority, possibly being counterproductive to the objective although safety is optimised.

Lives vs Lifelihoods

Zooming out from our hypothetical scenario and observing the world around us, we can actually see numerous examples where risky and potentially life-threatening activities are allowed, because the decision-makers at the top have decided that such activities are crucial to society’s everyday function.

Just last year, when Covid-19 struck Singapore, the country has gone under lockdown for a few months. Eating out, social gatherings and many other non-essential services are forced to shut down. Working and studying from home became the norm, as the population adapted to the new regulations implemented to keep people safe. Since then, Singapore has seen a few more waves of local Covid-19 cases rising and falling, with the government tightening or easing restrictions accordingly.

The World Health Organisation has mentioned that they do not advocate for lockdowns to be the primary means of controlling the Covid-19 virus, and that its purpose is just to buy time, reorganise people and resources, and isolate cases to keep the spread in check. However, if lockdowns were to be imposed over an extended duration of time, they have a 'profound negative impact on individuals, communities, and societies by bringing social and economic life to a near stop' (quoted from the WHO website).

Another example which I can relate to is the presence of high risk trainings for us conscripts in the army. Especially since I am in the Commando formation, which is an elite force in the army, my training includes static line jumps, numerous live firings and heli-rapelling, each training as dangerous as the next, and possibly life-threatening.

But these high risk trainings are not only tasked to units like mine. Every able-bodied national serviceman pretty much has to undergo live firings and even live grenade throws with real ammunition.

Even though Covid-19 and high risk military exercisee are potentially life-threatening, the Singapore government has in many occasions opted to sacrifice safety for stability and progress. Lives are valuable, but if we overvalue safety, our lifelihoods will suffer, and hence the government’s decision to make that sacrifice is justified, bolstering our national security and economy.

This reinforces the idea that in every decision to be made regarding safety, a cost-benefit analysis should always be conducted, with safety not being the top priority in most cases.

The Value of Human Life

An important point to note is that an over-reliance on that cost-benefit analysis could occur, resulting in the decision makers at the top perceiving human life inhumanely, perhaps labelling them with a price tag.

It has happened a few times before. One very prominent example is the Ford Pinto case, where a detective fuel design led to the Ford Pinto car being marginally more dangerous to travel in, as a vehicular accident, in particular one where the Ford Pinto is collided from the rear, has a higher chance of causing the fuel tank to ignite.

What makes the case even more controversial is that upon some investigation into Ford, it has been found that Ford has actually developed a new technology which makes the Pinto a lot safer, but the addition of that hardware costs roughly $11 per car. Ford has calculated a cost-benefit analysis based on their numbers, and found that the cost of implementing the new system would be $137 million as compared to the $49.5 million price tag put on deaths, injuries and car damages. With these numbers, they were not legally required to make the safety changes.

After releasing their report, Ford faced severe public backlash on the ethics behind their decision, especially with the notion of placing monetary price tags on human life.

However, in an academic analysis of the case, Christopher Leggett argued that Ford’s use of a cost-benefit analysis which led to the decision made not to implement safety changes to the system was the best option they had, and was the correct standard to adopt, as it was economically efficient and provides the greatest welfare for society, economically speaking. Besides, it was the standard which many corporations and even individuals use to make a decision, consciously or otherwise. However, the 'how' in which the cost-benefit analysis was conducted was wrong, as Ford did not consider many aspects in the case which contributes to hidden costs, influencing the final decision.

Leggett also mentioned that “critics and laypeople have a difficulty valuing non-economic entities as is required by the formula", and “one must realize that these 'valuations' and determinations are part of everyday public policy". The system and formulation wasn’t perfect, and possibly still isn’t, but there must exist a formulation or framework which organisations can follow to make big decisions such as these, in which the value of life is estimated to maximise societal welfare, however unethical it might seem (although in reality it is not as unethical as most would perceive it to be).

Mutual Understanding

A lot of these controversies occur because there is a stark difference in understanding and perspectives between the public and large organisations like companies or governments. Laypeople typically side the pro-life and pro-safety approach, because it is usually their lives or that of their loved one’s at stake, or because their moral code tells them to fight for what is ethically right. They view large organisations as groups who are calculative and ultimately financially-driven, soulless, greedy entities out to exploit people if it can. Even though organisations typically aren’t evil, they are calculative, because they have to be in order to survive and be successful. Sometimes, because of that nature, they forget about the human side of things, and require reminders from the public.

And remind we shall. We have every right to raise ethical issues to these organisations, questioning their methods and demanding transparency. What we should not do is demand for things to be done a certain way, when we do not fully understand the big picture. Don’t be a smart alec.

Ultimately, the decision makers at the top have the resources and information required to make an informed decision, and we should trust that they make the right one. If you sense that something is amiss, raise it up to the relevant authorities, by all means, and let them conduct the investigation and make the necessary changes, instead of being a justice fighter on social media and being annoying in general.

Mutual understanding is important such that unnecessary conflicts do not occur, allowing society to run smoothly. Let’s play our part and keep an open mind about things. Understand that there are reasons behind every decision, and avoid jumping to conclusions.



Critically analysing life a lot more than I should.

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