This rather new book (published by Headline in 2015) was brought to my attention by Frank Guldenmund. While I didn’t purchase my copy on an airport it does actually fit in the series with airport literature of popular scientific (ish) books that are worthwhile reading for Safety Professionals - yet far from mandatory.

As we can see from the subtitle, the book deals with the paradox of why things can become riskier after we made them safer and why sometimes situations that we perceive as risky can help making us safer. Sounds interesting? It is! Themes include risk homeostasis, side-effects of well-intended safety measures in various areas, the (dis)advantages of engineering versus ecological approaches and that kind of stuff. 

There’s one major ‘but’, however. Because the author, Greg Ip is a journalist and an economist the book leans rather heavily on examples from finance. Personally I’ve come to appreciate the financial world in recent years more and more as an area that safety and risk professionals can learn from. But I must say, I found that this book had overall a bit too much finance in it, especially in the level of detail that was somewhat lost on me. And I was slightly annoyed that Ip has to get back to finance in absolutely every chapter. But then, that’s where his roots are… Enough grumpy comments, let’s do a quick walk-through:

The first two chapters deal with the financial crisis - or actually with several crises through the years. Quite interesting with a lot of historical background (even though I disconnect after a while).

Chapter 3 adds food safety. Quite interesting. Discussion of ‘real’ risk and perception. The logic of panic.

Chapter 4: sports (why protective helmets ‘cause’ injuries in American football) and automobiles and traffic safety (finally something substantial that most ‘common’ safety folk can relate to!). Risk compensation, pros and cons of safety measures.

Chapter 5 sees us fully back in finance with saving (who would have thought about side-effects of saving…), gold standards and the Euro.

Chapter 6 deals mainly with floods and levees. Trying to control the risk around the Mississippi led to the ‘levee effect’ leading to a vicious circle where you have to build higher and higher and move the problem elsewhere.

Chapter 7 is titled Good Risk, Bad Risk and starts the second part of the book that deals with the balance between safety and disaster. Actually I feel that the book gets more interesting from here on.

Chapter 8 shows some clear examples of the differences and advantages/disadvantages of engineering and ecological approaches by discussing forest fires, antibiotics and (inevitably) finance.

Chapter 9 delves into insurance, probabilities, the fact that people and organisations have a hard time dealing with rare events/low probabilities. There’s a brief look at antifragility and a interesting discussion of the fallacy of composition (p. 212).

Chapter 10 is one of the most interesting for me personally and one of those that deals most explicitly with safety (maybe just because it deals with a form of safety that I can easily relate to…). Aviation safety, how safe if flying really, High Reliability Organisations, (confidential) near-miss reporting (ASRS), the problem of learning/improving in very safe systems (no discussion of Safety-II, however!), what buys most safety and the cost of air travel security.

Chapter 11 starts with a quick summary of the book and then discusses some solutions. Firstly by suggesting that one should take the best of two worlds (engineering and ecologist approach). Cost benefit analysis, acceptable risk and the cost of freedom is the next subject. Creating space is suggested as an almost universal applicable measure to increase safety without too many negative side-effects. Memory and experience play an important role too. A bit disappointing (for me personally) is the defending of hold-the-handrail-safety at Exxon. But then, what would an economist know about that.

As a whole interesting and to a certain degree entertaining - if you can deal with (once more) a lot of finance. There are lessons there, but I found that the real gems (apart from saving and insurance, maybe) were found in the other domains that the author discusses.

Finally I have to mention the packaging which is pretty cool as the cover feels like the book is packed in bubble wrap - funnily illustrating some of the message.

Headline paperback: ISBN 9781472214188