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30 March, 2013 Posted by Christopher Jenner Posted in Blog
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Safety and Society – The Effects of Perception

Perception - Safety First

When considering risk analysis and management its easy to overlook how our preconceived opinions can influences what we determine to be a priority.  “Back on the agenda: The curious case of nuclear energy and public acceptance” by Malcolm Grimston, explores the cyclical nature of nuclear energy’s public acceptance. Most importantly he covers the widely varying views that industry advocates and opponents have regarding the use of nuclear power. The ultimate conclusion being that neither side seems to objectively look at the possibility of the power source. This then adversely affects the public’s ability to weigh up the benefits vs. risks.

Personally I see risk management as a means to identify, assess and manage risks in a structured and objective way. This is inclusive of personal, property, environmental, business and public risk that may result from an action or activity. An important role of the management strategy is communication with the public and relevant parties, which by the objective nature of the analysis should be unbiased. Malcolm’s article highlights some of problems in popular public debate, that is, the effect of a hard-line group’s perceptions of risk vs. benefits, and how the biased nature of such views affects public sentiment. In the case of nuclear power, there are two main groups, each with a focus for or against its adoption. The unwilling nature of either, to explore the others reasoning, can also be seen in risk management. What one person perceives as risk, the other may not. This for me is at the heart of risk management and shows why effective risk analysis should be carried out cooperatively, something that Malcolm outlines as a strategy for future nuclear debate.

Youtube - 1972 Legendary Ford Pinto Crash Test

Click for Youtube Video – 1972 Legendary Ford Pinto Crash Test

Another example in risk analysis can be seen in the Ford Pinto case study. In this study, Ford weighs up the safety benefits of fixing a fatal flaw in the Pinto’s gas tank vs. the possible monetary benefits of not. Fords use of a cost/benefit analysis to analyse the inherent flaw leads to a number of deaths, but was justifiable under the model used at the time. The expected harm in this case did not exceed the cost of taking the precaution; this however, does not mean ethically the precaution should not have been taken. If we consider two groups in this argument, the public and Ford, we can see vastly different ideas of risk management. In the eyes of the public the risk should have been minimised, while the view of Ford executives was to maximise profits not minimise risk. Either party would have been correct at the time; it comes down to perspective. This is also mirrored in Malcolm’s study of nuclear public acceptance.

It’s easy to dismiss the actions of Ford in the Pinto case and hard line nuclear activists, but inherently how we perceive things plays a large role in our lives. When you consider your interactions with the media, friends and colleagues it becomes easy to see that your perception of an event or place can be swayed. A classic example is the iPad. Without considering the possible benefits or disadvantages of the product, the majority of the public have an opinion on it. Ask someone who has never used an iPad what they think of it, and they will likely give you a hard-line answer. It’s not uncommon to see an individual who once despised the product then be using it a number of years later, while touting the very flaws they despised. It’s a classic example, which highlights just how much the opinion of others or the media dictates our actions and views. When considering risk management, it’s important to be aware of your views, how they were formed, and how that may affect your ability to objectively analyse the risks present.

What other things should engineers look out for when considering risk management?

Pidgeon, Nick, Barbara Harthorn, and Terre Satterfield. 2009. “Nanotech: Good or Bad?”. The Chemical Engineer, January 2010: 37-39.

Hoffman, W. M. (1982). Case Study: The Ford Pinto. Corporate Obligations and Responsibilities: Everything Old and New Again, 222-229.

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ProcessPrinciples.com is my personal blog that allows me to share some of the knowledge I have gained on the road to becoming a chemical engineer. My goal is to create a site that supports the exchange of information through tutorials, presentations, articles and blog entries. Feel free to contact me with suggestions or feedback.

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