Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Risk – What are you afraid of?

Its Halloween week - the time when fear becomes fun. We watch scary movies and dress like scary ghouls of all sorts, all in the name of having a good time. And this holiday is big business, with it accounting for billions in retail sales every year.

As safety professionals, it’s somewhat ironic to see people make light of things that they probably should be scared of. After all, many incidents that we investigate or hear about involve people not taking the risks they face seriously enough. We see people doing things that they should have been too scared to do.

One difference between Halloween and the safety profession is that we don’t really talk about “fear” as much as we talk about “risk.” The whole idea of risk and how people relate to risks is an interesting one. The social sciences have studied risk for a long time and have come to one solid conclusion – people are natural risk assessors…we’re just naturally bad at it. Research suggests that people consistently do not take seriously very serious risks and are overly cautious with risks that they probably don’t have to worry about.

Take a Halloween example for instance – on Halloween night many parents will allow their kids to dress up and go out trick or treating, but before they allow their kids to eat the massive quantities of candy that they get, a certain number of parents will inspect that candy to look for signs of tampering. This is as a result of rumors of kids’ candy being poisoned. Consider though that there has been no significant evidence of any poisonings related to Halloween trick or treating.

But what other risks do kids face on Halloween? For example, we have kids roaming the streets, at night, typically while wearing dark clothing, on a night where there are many adult parties that lead to increased drinking and driving. Aren’t accidents involving motor vehicles a much higher, more documented risk? How many parents take significant steps to protect their kids from that risk?

Here’s the thing – these parents are stupid and they aren’t bad parents. They just suffer from a very common condition called humanity. The bottom line is that people make bad decisions based off of incomplete data sometimes.

Research suggests that numerous factors go into the average persons’ assessment of risk. Factors that can increase or decrease a person’s assessment of risk include:

  • Perceived ability to control circumstances
  • Familiarity with the risk
  • The ability to imagine the event happening (usually because of exposure in the media)
  • Perceived Suffering
  • Perceived Scale of Destruction
  • Fairness


Notice how very little of the above includes objective criteria of how often the event will happen.

What does all of this mean? Remember how many blogs ago we told you that deep down we are all safety professions? That’s true in a sense – if you feel like something is wrong there probably is a hazard there. However, we must not assume that if we feel like nothing is wrong that nothing is wrong and we definitely cannot assume that if we feel like something is wrong that nothing else is wrong besides that. When dealing with a world full of risks our gut instincts are our last line of defense. We must actively be assessing all of our risks in a conscious, directed way, otherwise we may exposed ourselves to more risks than we’re will to accept!


So, this Halloween, go ahead and have some fun with fear. Just remember to keep an eye out for the high risks that pose the greatest danger to us and those we love!

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