A Deadly Serious Hazard

“The basic reality is that the risks that scare people and the risks that kill people are very different.” 
     ~Peter Sandman

Are you losing sleep over the Coronavirus? Cancelling travel plans, cashing in your investment portfolio, stocking up on respiratory protection, staying away from crowds?
If you answered yes to any of the above, you’ve got plenty of company. Read the newspaper headlines – front page, business page, sports page, doesn’t matter which – you’d be convinced this virus is the second coming of the plague. 
Which it may well turn out to be. 
And maybe it won’t. Last time something like this came along, it was called SARS.  Couple of decades ago, the epidemic caused 774 deaths worldwide. To put that in perspective – which, bottom line, is the point of this – last year the flu claimed 80,000 lives in the US. 
Time will tell how the matter of the Coronavirus plays out. No matter what happens, this story has already provided a very useful lesson that has nothing to do with world health, and everything to do with how we humans treat hazards.
If your business has hazards, and your business has people, it’s a lesson you need to learn.

Watching Out for Hazards
A hazard is a source of danger: something that can hurt you. Hazards are everywhere. Nature creates them, like microbes and mosquitos. Humans create them; like planes, trains and automobiles. There isn’t a place on earth you can go to escape them. Try hiding under your bed? You might run into a spider; most likely there’s dust. Both can be harmful to your health.
Any time you want to you can stop, look and make a list. I promise you it will be a long list, populated with things that you know darn well can hurt you. 
That’s lesson number one. By the age of reason, we know most of what can hurt us and most of what goes on the list comes as no great surprise. 
But that’s not normally how we go about the process of watching out for hazards. Most of the time, we’re too busy to take the time, and pre-occupied doing other things. 
Fortunately we’re all hard-wired with an internal hazard detection system that does this for us. Our brain is constantly evaluating incoming sensory data: sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. When a hazard is detected, an alarm is sounded. Sometimes referred to as the instinct for survival, without this system we’d all be goners.
But not all hazards are detectable to our senses. Carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless, and the Coronavirus is undetectable to our senses. To detect hazards like those, we have to rely alternative methods. For CO, there is hazard training and job safety analyses – on the job. For the virus, there’s the news and word of mouth, both of which appear to be very highly effective means of getting our attention. 
Think about how nice it would be if people at work took the hazards to their hands as seriously as they do the hazard to their health from something like the Coronavirus.
But they don’t, and there’s a reason why.
Calculating Risk
The Coronavirus is the perfect example of a hazard: a source of harm to human health and wellbeing. If you’re cancelling travel plans, staying away from crowds, and stocking up on respiratory protection, you are of the opinion that this virus is a real threat to you.
That is the perfect illustration of risk. 
Risk is the probability that something bad will happen to us.  For every hazard there is a risk. While a hazard is real, a risk is just a number. We measure risk as a percentage of probability, greater than 0 and less than 100. 
Assuming you want to live long and prosper, logic suggests it’s best to pay the most attention and be the most careful about the hazards most likely to harm us – and harm us the worst. 
Seems simple enough, until you put the logic into practice. Then you have to deal with the big problems created by three little words contained therein: likely, worst, and us.
Perception Isn’t Reality
So, we know the Coronavirus is hazard. As to its risk, who knows the likelihood of the virus actually striking us? Or worse, fatally harming us? 
For all the attention focused on the virus, there’s not been much provided in the way of probability. Not that this absence of information has gotten in the way of people taking the hazard seriously. Fair to say that’s because the potential harm can be very serious. 
So can the flu. 
A word to the wise about predicting harm from any hazard: you never know how these things turn out. In the last two decades the NEWS has detailed accounts where people escaped serious harm from serious hazards – and where seemingly small hazards proved fatal.
In a perfect world, we’d know the probability for every single hazard we encounter in our lives, starting with the microbes. But in the real world, we do not. 
Even if we did, how big a difference would knowing the risk of the hazard make to us?
In the States, every year there’s an official communication of the risk posed by two of the highest risk hazards we encounter on a regular basis: cigarettes and vehicles. Both are known to produce serious harm, as measured by fatalities. 
Why don’t we worry about those proven hazards the way we’re worrying about the Coronavirus?
Hazard Perception
To understand why we don’t necessarily follow what logic and data suggest to be the most careful about, you have to look elsewhere for an explanation.
You probably don’t remember Love Canal. Back in the 70’s, it was one of the headline making events that shaped the environmental regulations you know so well. Long story short, a century ago, some property development genius came up with an idea to dig a canal and surround it with homes and businesses. He named it Love Canal: it worked in Venice, why wouldn’t it work in Buffalo? 
Well, it didn’t. Eventually the abandoned canal was used as a disposal site for toxic industrial chemicals. The property changed hands a couple times, and then things came full circle: filled in, covered over, Love Canal became a housing site. 
Years later, those long buried chemicals began finding their way to the surface. Picture finding out your house is perched atop a toxic dump site: it’s the perfect storm of hazard recognition and potential consequences taken seriously.
So seriously that “outrage” was used to describe the reaction. Who wouldn’t be?
There was only problem with the story: the probability that the hazard was causing significant heath effects didn’t come anywhere close to matching the human emotion that it might. 
According to the American Association For The Advancement Of Science, “data from the New York Cancer Registry shows no evidence for higher cancer rates associated with residence near the Love Canal toxic waste burial site in comparison with the entire state outside of New York City. Rates of liver cancer, lymphoma, and leukemia, which were selected for special attention, were not consistently elevated.”
Those facts did nothing to change perceptions about this hazard. When it comes to “hazard perception” there seems to be a pattern.
Understanding “Outrage”
As to why when the data points one way, emotions often run in a completely different direction, the best take came from a professor of communications, Peter Sandman. It makes perfect sense: as a communications expert, Sandman’s focus was on the human in the process. 
Sandman observed the events of Love Canal and considered all of the hazards and risks residents were subjected to. Why so much energy and attention to the hazard found in the soil beneath their homes proven not likely to produce harm, and nowhere near that level of concern about the other serious hazards proven highly likely to produce harm?
Sandman’s explanation was this: the two factors that determine the degree of concern about a hazard have little or nothing to do with the risk – probability – or severity – of how bad the harm might be. Instead, the two factors that matter most to those potentially in harm’s way are who’s in control of the hazard, and what the effect of the hazard looks like. 
Put us in control over the hazard – our hands on the steering wheel of the car – and have the effect be ordinary and commonplace – just another wrecked car – we don’t take the hazard all that seriously. 
But, give control over the hazard to someone else – the pilot of the aircraft – and have the effect be catastrophic, graphic, memorable – airplane debris at the crash site – and wow, do we take that hazard seriously.
Hazard and risk can be determined by science and data; hazard perception and risk calibration is determined by five and a half inch space between our ears.
Connecting Up the Dots
So, back to where we started. Apply Sandman’s logic to the Coronavirus, the reaction makes perfect sense. The hazard is new, unknown, coming from some distant corner of the planet. We seem to have no control over contracting the virus. No wonder it’s front and center in our collective attention, regardless of the probability that we’ll suffer harm. 
Back on your job, things really aren’t any different. There are a probably a few high profile hazards that resemble the Coronavirus, and a lot of everyday, ordinary hazards that look more like driving and the flu. The former are easy for people to recognize and take seriously, the latter are a lot more likely to produce harm in the form of injuries, and a lot harder to get people to take as seriously as the need to.
That’s the nature of “hazard perception.”
Paul Balmert
February 2020

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