The Real Terror at Work

By Stussie, Gary | Risk Management, May 2002 | Go to article overview

The Real Terror at Work


Stussie, Gary, Risk Management


A handful of people worldwide die from contact with anthrax-laced mail and the chief operating officer is insisting the company needs a device in the mailroom for detecting chemical and biological agents. Does the actual threat to your company warrant the implementation of novel and expensive antiterrorism initiatives? Are there more realistic dangers that your company is ignoring?

Last summer, I was busy promoting my company's newest workplace violence prevention training package. To those directors of human resources, risk management and safety who were gracious enough to give me their time, I "phone painted" the dimensions of the workplace violence epidemic. I stressed the need for companies to familiarize their workforces with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) workplace violence prevention guidelines as a way of protecting employees and potentially reducing corporate liability--and my efforts were paying off. Evaluation copies of our "Workplace Violence Familiarization Package" flowed out and orders rolled in.

Then came September 11.

In the time that it took the planes to alter the New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania landscapes, antiterrorism initiatives rearranged the corporate priority list. Workplace violence prevention was suddenly deemed unimportant.

As manager after manager echoed the new corporate message--that the focus was now on antiterrorism--I realized that the emotionally charged events of September 11 had biased the corporate decision-making process in much the same manner that graphic media coverage of catastrophic aircraft accidents seems to irrationally deter people from flying.

Fear of Flying

Everyone knows someone who refuses to fly based on a perception of the exceedingly great risk to life and limb. To these individuals, the thought of boarding an aircraft invokes graphic images of charred fields strewn with rubble and dotted with little red and yellow flags. These images provide aviophobes with more than sufficient justification to load the minivan and take to the road.

In truth, catastrophic aircraft accidents are very rare events. During the past decade, the largest U.S. airlines, as a group, have experienced an average of one and a half to two catastrophic accidents per year. The risk of death or serious injury for air travelers is extremely small--about one in eight million. The Federal Aviation Administration's Aviation Safety Statistical Handbook, 1999 Annual Report, states that in 1999, a statistically typical year, there were 2,049 aircraft-related accidents and a total of 690 fatalities across the entire national airspace system, which includes all aviation operations in the United States except government and military flights.

In contrast, motor vehicle travel is exceedingly dangerous, with fatal crashes so commonplace they rarely receive more than local media attention. In 1999, the same year 690 people died in aircraft-related accidents, the National Highway Safety Administration's Traffic Safety Facts reported well over 6.3 million motor vehicle traffic crashes, which resulted in over 37,000 deaths and more than 2 million injuries. These numbers are typical of the yearly cost of motor vehicle travel in the United States.

To put the real risk into perspective, the FAA reports that if a passenger were to randomly take one commercial airline flight a day, that passenger would, on average, go for twenty-one thousand years before perishing in a fatal crash. Fatal motor vehicle crashes, on the other hand, have ended the life of at least 37,000 Americans every year since 1995.

The decision to take to the road, as an alternative to flying, is not only a suboptimal use of time and resources, it moves, the aviophobe in a direction that is decisively more dangerous. For most industries, the same may be said of the decision to devote resources to antiterrorism initiatives at the expense of the training, programs and controls that work to prevent incidents of workplace violence. …

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