Many Americans don't know dangerous work when they see it. What, me worry?

September 14, 2006
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Gee, who’d a thunk it?

This probably comes as no surprise to you — that many employees have blinders on in terms of hazard recognition.

After all, it’s human nature we’re talking about. The National Safety Council’s recent survey asking 400 workers about their top safety concerns reminds us how easy it is to fool ourselves when it comes to judging safety risks.

What does worry workers?

Violent crime and natural disasters worry most workers more than unintentional injuries on and off the job, according to the survey. But as the NSC points out, violent crimes and natural disasters are far less common than unintended injuries occurring at work, at home, on the road and in communities.

Consider these stats: According to the FBI, 16,137 Americans were murdered in 2004. That same year, 230 Americans died in hurricanes, tornadoes, extreme cold and severe or tropical storms, according the NSC. In comparison, more than 110,000 lives were lost in 2004 to unintentional injuries, which also harmed about 23.2 million people seriously enough to cause permanent or temporary disability, according to the NSC.

Another misperception: Workers feel safer at home than on the job, according to the survey.

About 31 percent of respondents said they believe they are safer at home than in the workplace, and 62 percent said they feel equally safe at home and at work. Only five percent said they feel safer at work.

But in 2004, nearly 44,100 workers died as a result of injuries suffered off the job, compared to about 5,000 deaths on the job, according to the NSC. Also according to the NSC, 6.8 million workers in the U.S. were disabled due to injuries suffered away from the job in 2004, compared to 3.7 million disabling injuries sustained in the workplace.

False security

So what distorts the risk perceptions of so many workers? Two factors are gleaned from an article in the May-June 2006 issue of American Scientist that focuses on perceptions of recreational drug use. Author Robert S. Gable, an emeritus professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University, studied the toxicity of recreational drugs and concludes alcohol ranks at the dangerous end of the toxicity spectrum. That’s because a lethal dose of alcohol is typically ten times the effective dose (which relaxes but does no harm). Heroin (injected intravenously) is lethal at five times its effective dose; marijuana (taken orally) is fatal at about 1,000 times the effective dose, according to the article.

(Here’s how the calculations work: According to Gable, a 154-pound adult can achieve a “relaxed affability” — an effective dose — from approximately 33 grams of alcohol. That’s equivalent to two 12-ounce beers or two 1.5-ounce shots of vodka. But a person consuming 20 shots of vodka in a matter of minutes, on an empty stomach, risks a lethal reaction.)

Gable contends if alcohol were a newly formulated beverage, its high toxicity and addiction potential would prevent if from being marketed as a food or drug. But most people don’t buy that. Which brings us back to three principles of risk perceptions.
  1. Missing consequences
    The more frequently we experience an event without a negative outcome, the lower our level of perceived risk, explains Gable. About 75 percent of all adults in the U.S. enjoy a drink now and then, almost always without it turning into a life-threatening experience. Statistics show about 300 people in the U.S. die from an alcohol overdose every year.

    Similarly, most workers come and go from their jobs every day without experiencing unintended injuries. Repeated exposures without negative outcomes leads to the “What, me worry?” mindset.
  2. Sense of security
    Perceptions of risk are also shaped by our sense of control over a situation. Most people don’t go into a bar worrying about “negative consequences” (other than tomorrow’s hangover) because they’re confident they can handle their liquor. Likewise, most people believe they are safer at home than at work because they feel more in control of their own surroundings.

    In contrast, you can see that workers’ biggest fears — of violent crime and natural disasters — are risks they perceive to have little control over.
  3. Power of publicity
    One other influence shapes the risk perceptions noted in the NSC survey. Murders, robberies, hurricanes and twisters get a lot more press than falls at home or amputations on the job. Publicized risks, even if relatively rare, tend to make an impression on the minds of workers.

    Meanwhile, safety pros continue to wrestle with human nature. Familiarity with work routines and home environments — plus that lack of publicity — indeed breed contempt for risks that warrant more respect.
“What, me worry?”

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