WIT Press

Analysing Safety: Epistemic Uncertainty And The Limits Of Objective Safety


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N. Möller


Much research has been devoted to studies of safety, but the concept of safety is in itself under-theorised. Often, safety is indirectly defined through processes and classifications vital for practical safety engineering. However, without a substantial understanding of the concept, the subject matter of risk and safety research remains fuzzy. The aim of this paper is to provide a framework for such a substantial understanding, capturing what experts in risk and safety research as well as ordinary laypersons should include in the concept of safety. When safety is directly defined, it is traditionally defined as the inverse of risk: the lower the risk, the higher the safety. I argue that such a definition of safety is inadequate, since it leaves out the crucial aspect of deficiencies in knowledge. In sociotechnical contexts, every evaluation of risk is an estimation, and therefore involves a certain amount of epistemic uncertainty. An analysis of safety must consider that complication. Epistemic uncertainty points to the epistemic primacy of safety. It is concluded that, strictly speaking, an objective safety concept is not attainable. Instead, an epistemic, intersubjective concept is proposed that brings us as close as possible to the ideal of an objective concept. Keywords: conceptual analysis, safety, risk, uncertainty, objectivity, intersubjectivity. 1 Introduction Even though much research has been devoted to studies of safety, the concept itself is under-theorised. The actual meaning of ‘safety’ is often entirely taken for granted or is very loosely defined. A typical example comes from the context of nuclear power, where safety is defined in the following way: \“Safety is what provides protection, averts danger, fosters confidence.” ([1], ch. 1, p. 6). Such a


conceptual analysis, safety, risk, uncertainty, objectivity, intersubjectivity.