Precautionary principle: a moral principle guarding against actions that might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public, caused by human actions on the environment and human health.

The precautionary principle implies that there is a responsibility to intervene and protect the public from exposure to harm where scientific investigation discovers a plausible risk in the course of having screened for other suspected causes. The protections that mitigate suspected risks can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that more robustly support an alternative explanation.

The widespread application of the precautionary principle has been adopted and endorsed throughout Europe. In simple terms, governments have stated that lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective or beneficial measures to prevent environmental degradation or to take precautionary action to limit the use of potentially dangerous materials or the spread of potentially dangerous pollutants.

How does this apply to healthcare design? Healthcare designers can play a key role by providing better choices for healthier interior environments, as well as reducing the impact of healthcare facilities on the local and global environment.

Developing hospital design standards that create synergies among patient safety, workplace safety, and environmental health and safety is one way the precautionary principle can be implemented.

The Center for Health Design created RIPPLE, an updatable, open-source, searchable, Web-based database to link the existing evidence for design strategies that improve the “safeties” as listed above.

“Precautionary policies should strive to minimize net risks to human health and the environment based on the best available scientific information regarding the nature, severity, magnitude, certainty, immediacy, and other characteristics of the various risks, and their net anticipated costs to society.”