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Assessing risk in engineering, work and life
Assessing risk in engineering, work and life

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2.5 Risk perception

In their everyday lives, people become aware of a variety of events, ranging from the local but relatively small-scale (such as a serious road traffic accident in a town’s main street) to the remote but large-scale (Figure 10). A local incident is of great and direct concern to a given group of individuals. On the other hand, major incidents (regardless of how geographically remote they are) receive the greatest publicity and raise more general concerns about the risks of technology. In fact, perceptions of risk are not based solely on quantitative measures but also include subjective value judgements. An individual’s perception is influenced by the degree to which the risk is imposed upon them rather than accepted voluntarily, their knowledge of the problem, their trust in the ‘management’ of the risk, and so on. The net result is that reaching a consensus view over what constitutes a risk can be difficult.

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Figure 10 Local and large-scale incidents: (a) rollercoaster crash at Alton Towers theme park (2015); (b) fire on the Piper Alpha oil production platform (1988); (c) nuclear reactor explosion at Chernobyl (1986); (d) road traffic accident

The issues that affect people’s perception of risk can be summarised broadly as follows:

  • Voluntary risks are accepted more readily than imposed risks.
  • Risks under individual control are accepted more readily than those under corporate or government control.
  • Risks that seem fair are accepted more readily than those that seem unfair.
  • Risk information from untrustworthy sources is less readily believed than that from trustworthy sources (people who trust regulators and their government in general are more likely to accept the regulator’s assessment of a risk).

It is important to remember that public perception of risk and scientific evaluation may well not agree. Research consistently shows that people’s perception of risk is a function not just of the possible harm, but also of the attributes of the hazards and benefits associated with the thing in question. So how can you decide what risk is reasonable and on what evidence something is safe?