The Weekly Reflektion 09/2024

Risk communication often involves scaring people when the hazards are significant, but the risk is perceived to be low and calming them down when the hazards are not significant but are perceived to be high. There is often a poor correlation between the hazards that upset people and the hazards that cause serious harm. Smoking is an interesting example, as is driving a car. When we work with risk management in hazardous materials, in hazardous environments and with complex systems we need to understand the difference between hazard and outrage.

The escalators into the ticket office area of the Kings Cross Underground Station Fire

What do you do to get people to appreciate the hazards they face?

Peter Sandman is a specialist in risk communication. He is not a specialist in risk assessment and has no expertise into whether certain substances, equipment, or systems are hazardous nor whether the risks associated with these are significant. He has however expertise in how people respond to the way risk is communicated and what can make them apathetic and what can make them outraged. Apathy and outrage are the two extremities on the response scale. While Sandman mainly works with communication of risk to the public his reflections are also relevant for industry. 

Sandman’s definition of risk is: Risk = Hazard + Outrage. He sometimes puts a more mathematical slant on this by saying, risk is a function of hazard and outrage.

Most people perceive risks to be less when they have control over the hazards and when they make the choice to accept the risk. Compare cutting up a carrot with a sharp knife when you are holding the knife and the carrot, to when you have the carrot and someone else has the knife. We, especially men, often feel more comfortable when we are driving even though we may not be that good. Statistics show that 85% of men believe they are a better than average driver. Skiing on the slopes of Chamonix-Mount-Blanc is a different experience than being involuntarily strapped to two planks of wood and being pushed down a snow-covered hill. 

Normalisation is when we become used to a hazard and over time the perceived risk gradually reduces. It can also mean that we are upset by a hazard that we experience often, we feel more outrage and the perceived risk increases. 

The fire at the Kings Cross Underground station on 18thNovember 1987 killed 31 people. The management of London Underground had identified three major risks to the public: fire, congestion, and crime. The management prioritised congestion and crime because these generated outrage among the public. Congestion was something people experienced every day and their concerns were continually reinforced and management received plenty of complaints. Crime was also commonplace, in particular pick pockets, and was something the management were made aware of every day. 

There had been several fires in the underground system over the years so there were plenty of warnings, however there was no constant reminder, and it was not something the publicwere concerned about. A smoking ban on the underground was mainly respected on the trains but not in the stations. A match falling through a gap in an escalator ignited the fire that eventually turned into a fireball that engulfed the ticket office. Staff were not trained on how to prevent fires nor their escalation.

The management prioritised addressing the outrage and failed to protect the public from the hazard of fire, with tragic results.

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