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Clarity of design can boost effectiveness of safety regs in high-hazard industries: report

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Washington – Noting that “regulators of high-hazard industries must have an informed and reasoned basis for making their regulatory choices,” a recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine states that clarifying design concepts of safety regulations in industries such as transportation, chemical manufacturing, and offshore oil and gas development – and exploring how various circumstances may impact them – can help.

A committee of experts in regulation, risk analysis and management assembled at the request of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration found that safety regulations often draw criticism after incidents occur. However, the effectiveness of these regulations still can be difficult to gauge because the aim is to limit statistically rare catastrophes. This can be further complicated by the inconsistent use of descriptors of means- and ends-based regulations – terms such as “performance-based” and “prescriptive” – that tend to be murky, the report states.

The committee identified four main types of regulatory design and tested each one against different high-hazard applications. The report authors warned the regulators against placing excessive emphasis on generic lists of advantages and disadvantages for design types.

“A safety regulator’s primary aim in choosing among regulatory designs should be to select designs that best suit the nature of the safety problem to be addressed,” the report states. “The regulator should take into account its own capabilities and resources for ensuring compliance and the capacity of regulated entities to meet their obligations. If such preconditions are missing or cannot be created, the regulator should be concerned that the type of regulation being considered will be inapplicable to the circumstances and potentially ineffective.”

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