Managing Safety Performance NewsFlash

Comparing Hazards

What’s the bigger hazard: a commercial airliner or a mosquito?

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Were you to base your choice on the size of the hazard the answer would be stunningly obvious: it’s the jet. Comparing it to a mosquito is like comparing a hammer to the COVID virus. But that’s not how you compare hazards and decide which ones to pay the most attention to.

So how do you make that choice?

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One basis for comparison is to consider the potential harm a hazard can cause. You take COVID a lot more seriously than you do a hammer, and for good reason: the virus is a very serious hazard that has caused serious illness and death.  So can an airplane. 

But so can a pesky little mosquito, by carrying and transmitting disease.

As to which of those two airborne hazards actually does the greatest harm, in a year’s time, on our planet upwards of a million people die from health hazards spread by mosquitoes; as many as seven hundred million more suffer serious harm. 

On that basis, the answer to what is the bigger hazard is becomes stunningly obvious: it’s the mosquito. It might be the biggest hazard on the planet.

But what if diseases carried by mosquitoes are very rare where you live?

If you fly on planes all the time, but rarely travel to places where malaria is prevalent, the commercial airliner would be the bigger hazard – for you. In that case, the answer is based on your personal exposure to the hazard.

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As to the point served by this exercise, it’s really simple. Whether we realize it or not, we all regularly compare hazards, deciding which ones to pay close attention to, and which ones not to worry about. We do that by comparing potential severity, data, and personal exposure.

And the more we understand that process, the better we’ll be at recognizing what can harm us.

Paul Balmert
September 2021

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