NSC: Understanding Risk

National Safety Congress Alan McMillan told a packed audience of safety professionals at the National Safety Congress in San Diego this week that one of the most significant challenges safety professionals face is to help society understand the "real risk, true hazards, and often, the fear of them."

While admitting there are events in the world that can create concern, McMillan noted there are many kinds of events that were once considered relatively minor that in these times, become national news.

"A comparatively small virus can be perceived as a national epidemic. Or some people may take a single plane crash and use that as a rationale for a broadscale fear of flying," said McMillan. "As safety and health professionals, it is our job to provide perspective and context about risk in our world. Ultimately, only the facts can overcome fear."

And the facts are, he added, "That far more people die in automobiles than airplanes. Far more people die of cancer and heart disease every day than have died this year from West Nile Virus. And five more times people died last year from falls in their homes than died at the World Trade Center."

While saying he didn't want to trivialize the tragedies of plane crashes or the World Trade Center attacks, McMillan said that by focusing only on high-profile events, true risk might be misinterpreted or misunderstood.

"We actually live in a healthier and safer nation than ever before," he noted. "Deaths due to preventable injuries and illnesses, as a percentage of our population, continue to decrease."

But, he added, many of the health and safety risks faced by workers today are the same they have faced for decades, such as motor vehicle crashes, falls, fires, poisonings, drownings and construction trench cave-ins.

He also pointed out that 64 percent of the 93,000 people that died in preventable accidents off the job last year were workers and their family members. "Your organization has a core need to invest in off-the-job safety initiatives, and you play an important role in leading your organizations to make that investment."

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