The weekly Reflektion Week 34 / 2019

This week’s Reflektion is inspired by the BBC Radio series ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’ and their program discussing risk.

How do you communicate the risks associated with your business? Do you intend to assure or scare?

Statistics are often used in risk communication and can be useful to assure people that the risks associated with a business, factory, activity etc. are acceptable. However, the art of communicating risk also requires a context to place the statistics within to ensure the message is the one that you want. Failure to provide the context can result in failure to assure and even end up scaring people.

One interesting statistic to consider is ‘In what sport is there the highest number of deaths during playing?’ A sport to be avoided perhaps? A sport where we should consider regulating to reduce the fatality rate? A sport we should warn our children not to play as it may be too dangerous?

The answer is ‘lawn bowling’. The sport itself is relatively harmless, in that people do not die as a result of accidents or injuries related to the sport itself. The deaths are not due to impact of bowling balls or hitting people with a vigorous follow through. The deaths are mainly caused by strokes, heart attacks and other age-related health problems. The exertion of bowling may have provoked the problem, but the bowling can hardly be blamed for the death. Without the context the statistic is misleading.

Another common way of presenting statistics is the use of relative risk. Research has shown that eating a full English breakfast every day will increase the risk of cancer of the pancreas by 25%. The statistics in the US indicate that 16 people in a 1000 die of cancer of the pancreas every year, therefore an increase of 25% would mean 20 people in a 1000 could be expected to die. Is this significant? Significant enough to ditch the eggs and bacon and start on the All Bran and yoghurt? Again, without the context the statistic is misleading.

Peter Sandman, a specialist in risk communication often highlights the way in which industry fails to communicate the risk associated with its activities. In particular, the way statistics are used with the intention of assuring the public. An example is the presentation of the risk of a fatality as calculated from a risk assessment process e.g. Quantitative risk assessment (QRA).

In connection with the siting and building of a new chemical factory a company communicated the following. We have calculated the risk of fatality for two different factory design options. Option 1 gives an annual risk of between 5.4 *10-4 and 8.4*10-4. Option 2 gives an annual risk of between 1.2 * 10-3 and 1.3 * 10-3. We believe Option 1 should be selected since it has lower risk.

The public didn’t quite see it this way. They reacted to the range in the results, in particular for Option 1, and intuitively concluded the company did not really know how big the risk with Option 1 was. This undermined their confidence in the company and the process with the factory was halted.

When we make statements like ‘we have reduced the risk by 20%’ have we provided enough context for people to understand what this means? What is the risk that is being reduced? What is it being reduced from? Is the risk relevant? Is the risk acceptable? On what basis has the risk been calculated and on what basis is it being accepted? What are the key assumptions used in the risk assessment process? Risk Management is a fundamental part of our industry and good communication of the risks is an important factor in our ‘License to Operate’.

Reflekt AS