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Risk (Mis)perception

I really believe that most health and safety professionals attempt to bring as much objectivity as possible into ensuring that people whom they influence have as accurate a perception of the risks which they face as possible. However, we still see the ‘elf and safety accusations in the media and in my view it is a sad reflection on the situation that it has become necessary for HSE to set up their ‘myth busters’ panel.

However at a different level it is important that we consider how we can create an accurate perception of the new risks which arise in this rapidly changing society.

An area of risk which has, for decades now, seen the public influenced more by emotion than objective fact has been the nuclear industry. The basis of design in this industry has always been to achieve a very remote probability of failure. However, if people are asked what they understand by a probability of 1 in a million some people will say that it won’t happen for a million years whilst others will feel that this doesn’t count as the consequences of a failure can be so high. This is an example where communication of facts is a critical factor.

On a personal note, I should by now be either suffering from asthma or even dead!! When I left university I was carrying out metallurgical research to develop catalysts. This involved two substances which at that time were perceived as ‘safe’: powdered platinum (now a known respiratory sensitiser) and asbestos!! I hate to imagine the results of a risk assessment of this task now.

In the present climate it is probably more important than ever to ensure that we have accurate risk data for the range of new and emerging risks. These include issues such as genetically modified organisms which many automatically assume will lead to mutations and nanotechnology where we have seen articles referring to the creation of “grey gunge”. Conversely we get bombarded by those with vested interests telling us about the wonderful benefits which these will bring.

One source of help is the EU OSHA which has established their Enterprise Survey on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER) whose reports can be accessed at the EU OSHA website (

At a more local level, how many health and safety professionals have ever conducted a risk perception study within their organisations? Try one, you may be in for a surprise.

Barry Holt, IIRSM Director of Policy & Research

N.B. IIRSM and the Univeristy of Warwick are running a Risk Communication forum on 29 January 2013 in London. Find out morehere.

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