Professional engineers deal in risk every day and are sometimes rather scathing about the inability of others to appreciate the complexities of the subject. But risk, hazard and perceptions of each have been much in the news in the past couple of weeks with the fall-out from the Icelandic volcano nudging the election off the news placards.
Q&A’s questions this time covered the specific event, but also asked about contingencies for other potentially disruptive risks that readers might face in business or private lives.
But the volcano came first. Flights into and out of the UK and much of northern Europe were grounded for six days because of the ash cloud, and though in the popular press most seemed to be on-side with this decision in the first couple of days, by the time the planes were flying again there was vast recrimination from the airlines and some grumbling from inconvenienced travellers. Did our readers, who know about risk, agree with the complainers?
Mostly no, they didn’t. By 68% to 26%, there was support for the cautious approach and, perhaps more surprisingly, sympathy for the authorities such as the aviation regulators and the government who’d had to make decisions to ground flights. The potential consequences of making an incorrect call on this convinced many that the risk was not worth taking.
Mind you, there were dissenting voices and some people wondered why, if the volcanic ash was actually safe to fly through, it had taken six days to find out. It was all very well, said some, to say at the start that we didn’t know the risk; but continued ignorance was embarrassing.
More widely, is caution now too much the default mode? We asked whether readers considered there was too much emphasis on prohibiting activities because of health and safety regulations and too little emphasis on justifiable and acceptable risk. It was, as several readers pointed out, a leading question – but we wanted to know whether the “health and safety gone mad” line had support among engineers.
It does: 82% think there is a risk-aversion culture and an over-cautious approach to much of our way of life, though many who wrote comments in said that it was part of an ever wider problem of bureaucracy and control freakery.
Back to the volcano. Did the stoppage of airline services have any effect on our readers in terms of missing people and missed meetings? This is a telling figure: we had 482 responses and 376 of them, 78%, experienced some form of disruption. Several had been affected personally through cancelled business trips or being stranded on business or holiday. A couple of responses came in last Friday from people drifting back into their email boxes.
A less obvious consequence of the suspension was that parts or orders might be held up in transit. Had our readers been affected in this way? As you might expect, quite a few didn’t know – 18% – but otherwise this seemed less common that personal dislocation: 32% said Yes and 50% said No, there hadn’t been disruption.
One of the big impacts of the ash episode was the unexpectedness of it all. Do our readers’ companies or organisations have crisis management plans to deal with major unpredictable incidents, such as a natural disaster or a fire? Again, quite a lot of our readers, 17%, don’t know; but 66% said Yes, there was a plan in place.
But would that plan now need modifying in the light of the recent incident? Certainly one manufacturer whose “back-up” plant was only a couple of miles from its main site had already told us that it would rethink globally. Mostly, at 52%, our readers think No, there won’t be any revision of plans, but 42% don’t know. Maybe there’s a point here that engineers, who are specialists in risk, could be useful people to be involved in decisions of this kind.
Where there does appear to be a large amount of contingency already in place is in terms of computer systems and files. We asked whether work systems were regularly backed up and stored off-site, and the answer is Yes for 89%. Only 4% said No, their files weren’t saved in this way.
If businesses are prepared for risk, are individual readers? Up to a point. We asked whether, if they lost their personal computer, mobile phone or PDA, readers would have a back-up for all their contact numbers. More than two-thirds, 68%, do, but 29% don’t. There was some diversity in this: some had lists of their mobile contacts but hadn’t backed up email lists, while others were the other way around.
This kind of preparedness is not followed through in other respects, though. We asked whether our readers had made provision at home for a prolonged power failure, with an independent light or heat source that could swing into action in emergency. The answer is mostly No, at 67%; several people said they had a torch, though how useful that would be in keeping families warm was less certain.
And, in the light of some of the tales on the opposite page, answers to our final question are also perhaps telling. We asked whether readers kept food, water
and warm clothing in their cars to cope with a lengthy breakdown. Only 25% do: many of those specifically mentioned water and several noted that after the winter just gone they’d changed their habits. But 72% still set out on their journeys confident they’re going to arrive unscathed. As those who set out to travel from our airports a few weeks ago found, that may be a risk too far.