Has your risk tolerance changed?

By: Frankie Wood-Black, Safety Expert

Our personal view of risk has a fundamental impact on how we behave, particularly as it relates to safety. OHSA’s Voluntary Protection Program, and many behavioral safety programs, focus on behavior to eliminate potentially “risky” actions. They accomplish this by using peer observations to point out hazards that may be overlooked due to unfamiliarity and/or potential actions because the “risky” behavior is not perceived as a risk versus the immediate benefit. Essentially, a person has performed that “risky” behavior many times without a negative impact. As an example, how many times have you used a chair (with rollers or not) as a stool to reach an object on an upper bookshelf? The chair was not designed as a stool, hence the risk of using it in that unintended manner, but the benefit is that the item can be reached without delay.

Every person has their own risk threshold. And that threshold varies based upon particular circumstances. For example, people will have a lower threshold of perceived risk if they are in control of the situation, for example, driving versus flying. While driving, you are in control or personally know who is in control, versus flying where some unknown pilot is in control of the airplane. Other factors like dread and the magnitude of the consequence influence our perception. For example, dread of fire versus the dread of drowning may impact the decision about whether you are willing to drive through smoke versus driving across a flooded road.

During this past year, there is evidence that our individual risk tolerances have changed, and not just in relation to our behaviors as they relate to public health. The National Safety Council released data this spring that traffic deaths rose 8% in 2020 while the number of miles driven in the U.S. dropped by an estimated 13%. Why? And, per the National Safety Council, the trend is continuing in 2021. According to the study, speed and risk-taking behavior seems to be the root cause of the increase. In the case of a traffic accident, speed plays a significant factor in the accident's severity (remember your general physics class).

What is concerning is that risk-taking behavior is prevalent in many areas of our daily lives. Just flip to your favorite news source and follow the various stories of the day. Count the number of stories that focus on one type of “risky” behavior. It may be time to re-assess our behavior and ask why we are willing to take the risk? In some cases, it may be a value or a benefit judgment. In others, it may be laziness, and the risk can be easily mitigated. But, as the old safety rules indicate, we need to stop and think before we act, as what we may consider an acceptable risk might have severe consequences and impact someone else.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

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