Risk Communication: A Two-Way Connection

Article excerpt

Risk Communication: A Two-Way Connection

Once potential hazards have been analyzed and quantified through risk assessment, what's the best way to get that information across? Experts say a dialogue, not a monologue, is the answer.

The 1980s could be called the "right-to-know decade" for industry. SARA Title III, the hazard communication standard, and state right-to-know laws, to name a few, have forced businesses to communicate more openly about the hazards inherent in the materials they use and produce, and the wastes they generate.

With these and other laws on the books, virtually anyone seeking access to such information can have it. But there is more to letting people know about potential risks than merely opening record books and disclosing information about chemicals, materials, and processes. Talking about risk has become a multilateral communication process, whereby industry, workers, community members, and government officials share information and concerns about the safety and welfare of all parties.

Stewart Young, a director of environmental, health, and safety consulting practice for the consulting firm of Arthur D. Little, Boston, defines risk communication as "the way in which you communicate with various interested parties about the nature and level of the risk and the controls you're going to take to change that level."

Communication, by even its simplest definition, is a process that moves in more than one direction. All parties in effective communication processes both send and receive information simultaneously. Ideally, this same principle is at work when people communicate about risk.

But in too many cases, companies simply disseminate information to their employees and the immediate community rather than engage in a "dynamic, back-and-forth exchange between various interest groups," says Young.

"Even though a company might satisfy the regulatory requirements, it is not necessarily getting the benefits of good risk communication by merely handing down data or risk assessment reports," says Young.

The best approach to risk communication is often dictated by the disposition of the audience being addressed, according to Peter Sandman, Ph.D., director of the environmental communication research program at Rutgers University.

"Part of risk communication is figuring out how to scare people when something is dangerous and they're not responding to it," says Sandman. "The other part of risk communication is figuring out how to calm people down when they're unduly alarmed about a risk that might not be terribly important."

Hazard vs. Outrage

In a speech at the American Industrial Hygiene Association's (AIHA) annual conference last May, Sandman talked about the concepts of hazard and outrage as they relate to risk communication. While he admitted to playing "fast and loose with terminology," he defined hazard as "how many people are likely to incur how much damage if we do X." Hazard, he added, "is what risk assessments are designed to estimate."

Sandman defined outrage, on the other hand, as "everything else that goes into lay people's risk perceptions," or "everything about a risk that's relevant except how likely it is to hurt you." In this sense, then, outrage is all of those elements that most people consider when deciding whether or not a risk is serious that have been ruled out of the technical definition of risk.

"With the level of hazard that we are usually dealing with in risk communication, the size of the hazard is a relatively unimportant thing compared to the outrage factor," says Sandman.

"Much of what I mean by outrage is experienced as fear," he explains. "Some of it is experienced as anger." These feelings, he says, often lead to a closing off, and a breakdown in the willingness to listen. A common misconception among companies, he says, is that the method of presentation can change these feelings. …