Why Can Risk Be Tolerated at an Acceptable Level?

The following is a list of why acceptable risk can exist:

  • • It falls below an arbitrary defined probability.
  • • It falls below some level that is already tolerated.
  • • It falls below the arbitrary defined attributable fraction of total accidents or illnesses in the workplace.
  • • The cost of reducing the risk would exceed the cost saved.
  • • The cost of reducing risk would exceed the costs saved when "cost of suffering" is also factored in.
  • • The opportunity cost would be better spent on other more pressing safety and health issues.
  • • Professional occupational safety and health professionals say it is acceptable.
  • • The workers deem the risk acceptable.
  • • The people in the community deem it acceptable.
  • • Politicians say it is acceptable.
  • • Company management deems it acceptable.

In the public domain, a risk of one in a million is considered acceptable risk (e.g., cancer, radiation poisoning, trauma death, automobile injuries, etc.), while in the workplace, a fence line mentality exists that accepts 1 in 1,000 occupation injuries, illnesses, or deaths. Risk acceptance always seems to be higher for workers. It is assumed that workers know and accept the risk of working, as do their employers. Employers are bottom line oriented and assume that acceptable or tolerated risk is alright if the economic saving arising out of action to reduce a risk outweighs the cost of such an action. In business, cost-benefit is a type of analysis that considers the cost of physical damage, cost to repair, cost to replace, cost to business's or company's reputation, liability/legal cost, and cost in relation to the human toll.

However, even judgment calls can be quantified if you develop criteria and place value upon them. W. Fine has provided a mathematical model (which has been updated by others from time to time) for conducting a risk assessment that results in a numerical value, which can be used to compare potential risks from accidents as well as determine if the amount of fixing justifies the cost involved to fix or remove the hazard. Most of his basic components are present, which will allow for assessing the risk of a hazard as well as making decisions on whether it is logical and economically feasible to fix the hazard.

In determining risk, a consequence value needs to be developed for the existing hazard, which indicates its effect on workers if they come into contact with it, as well as a value for the exposure potential, which denotes how many times during any period workers could come into contact with the hazard. There is also a need to assess the probability that workers would be injured, become ill, or be killed if they came into contact with the hazard. We use these three criteria since they are variables:

  • • Consequences—ranging from minor first-aid injuries to serious (amputation) or very serious (disabling) injuries, injury to multiple workers, or death.
  • • Exposure—ranging from minutes to hours, days, weeks, months, or years.
  • • Probability—ranging from 0% to 100%.

Factored together, these three allow for a determination of the amount of risk posed by a hazard. This is not a determination of acceptable risk. No matter the business or operation, another question that arises from this score is, "Should we invest the money to fix or remove the hazard, and what will be gained?" Another way to represent this is, "How much fixing will be gotten for the money invested?" Companies are always looking at the bottom line. The two factors in determining the justification factor for fixing or removing a hazard are dependent on the cost and the amount of fixing or removal of the hazard. This justification factor is obtained by determining the amount of fixing or removal (ranging from 100% to 0%). Secondly, what is the cost of fixing or removal (ranging from <$100 to >$1,000,000)? In making a business decision, one should consider whether the factor justifies the fix.

This is only a process that can be amended, not used, or used as one tool to help prioritize the tolerable or acceptable risk the company is willing to endure. It will allow for generating numbers to compare potential hazards and make informed decisions on addressing the existing hazard. When trying to make a case to management to fund safety/health- related items, quantitative approaches are better received than ones based on opinions or worded facts. Statistical data always help to bolster the case for doing almost anything.

In summary, determining acceptable risk is a complicated decision-making process, which means addressing more than safety and health only but also encompassing the areas of organization, management, employees, social issues, and political issues for input to the final decision-making process regarding how much occupational safety and health (OSH), how much risk acceptance, and the tolerance for risk.

Further Readings

Fine, W. "Mathematical Evaluations for Controlling Hazards," in J. Widner (Ed.). Selected Readings in Safety. Macon, GA: Academy Press, 1973.

Petersen, D. Techniques of Safety Management: A Systems Approach (3rd Edition). Goshen, NY: Aloray Inc., 1989.

Reese, C.D. Accident/Incident Prevention Techniques (Second Edition). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2012. Reese, C.D. Occupational Health and Safety Management (Third Edition). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2016.

Reese, C.D. and J.V. Eidson. Handbook of OSHA Construction Safety & Health (Second Edition). Boca Raton, FL: CRC/Lewis Publishers, 2006.

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