VEZINA: Prevention is never perfect and carries its own risks – Toronto Sun

The realistic choice is between more, smaller-scale disasters or fewer but larger ones

Author of the article:

Alex Vezina

Businesswoman stopping falling wooden dominoes effect
Businesswoman stopping falling wooden dominoes effect Photo by Stock art /Getty Images

As government and public conversations continue about what happens next in the COVID-19 pandemic and other societal risks, calls for prevention will inevitably increase.

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This will be especially true coming from experts who focus exclusively on a particular type of hazard.

Public health officials will design ever more vigilant disease prevention regimes, just as automotive experts will design ever more advanced braking systems to prevent collisions.

Risk experts, however, are more hesitant about attempting to eliminate all risks.

In fact, whenever a significant new risk prevention strategy is introduced, there are several caveats which need to be considered.

First, new points of failure or vulnerability will be created and new systems will need to be put in place to protect the new prevention measures from failing.

An example would be tougher building codes to prevent fires.

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If resources are thus reallocated from firefighting to designing tougher building codes in the belief fewer fires will happen, then more resources must be allocated to enforcing building codes because if they fail, there will be fewer firefighters to deal with them.

A similar argument can be made about COVID-19 with regard to preventing viral transmission by increasing testing capacity through training more skilled technicians.

Diverting training resources from front-line health care to testing capacity may produce a net benefit in risk reduction.

But if the testing fails, there is less of a “response safety net” to catch the risk.

Second, over time, dependency on the new normal will increase.

We have seen this in the race to digitize away risks by converting paper records to electronic ones.

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Many companies in the pursuit of efficiency and resiliency have gone paperless.

But this also creates a new point of failure — the IT systems themselves — and over time, staff will forget how they did things when they didn’t have digitized information.

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Third, people become less skilled at evaluating risk over time.

Implicit in the idea of prevention is the goal of making the risk never occur or at least occur only rarely.

But the less often a risk occurs, the less people will understand or respect it.

Going back to our example of car safety, if the goal is to improve car braking systems so that collisions never or almost never occur, why bother to learn to drive safely?

This is why as brakes for cars improve, people tend to brake later than they did prior to having better brakes.

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Everyone has their own amount of risk they want to assume (risk appetite) and are willing to assume (risk tolerance).

The more the risk is unknown, the less information people have to gauge their risk tolerance.

Without being able to gauge risk tolerance, people either overestimate risks out of a generalized fear of all risk, or assume risks they would normally never assume.

In Germany, this realization has been incorporated into the design of children’s playgrounds.

As it turns out, they weren’t risky enough.

Instead of taking measures such as removing swings from playgrounds in an effort to reduce risk, Germany is installing large logs in playgrounds and polishing them to increase the chances of falling.

The thinking behind this is that if children do not come into contact with risk when they are young, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to accurately assess risk when they get older.

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People tend to learn risk lessons very fast from reality checks caused by accidents, while the goal of risk prevention is to remove the opportunity for those reality checks.

This is why emergency preparedness experts like full-scale, as realistic as possible emergency exercises in which people experience the risks that risk prevention is designed to eliminate.

People need that reality check, the proverbial swift kick in the rear, to determine how comfortable they are with the risks.

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So here is a reality check: Bad things like COVID-19 are going to keep happening.

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If we don’t prevent them, obviously they will happen again.

If we do prevent them, over time we will forget why we prevented them, and ultimately the prevention measures will fail.

The realistic choice is between more, smaller-scale disasters or fewer but larger ones when systems collapse and safety redundancies fail.

We can interpret this as either depressing and overwhelming, or we can be happy with our better understanding of risk and thus make better decisions about it.

— Alex Vezina is the CEO of Prepared Canada Corp. and has a graduate degree in Disaster and Emergency Management. He can be reached at info@prepared.ca.

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