Friday, July 06, 2007

The Myths of Safety

The potential unintended consequences of safety programs ...

"Think of the greatest environmental disaster in recent history. For many people, the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound comes to mind.

Three hundred seals, 2,800 sea otters, 250,000 sea birds and a host of other wildlife were killed by that spill, acknowledged Corrie Pitzer, an industrial psychologist from SAFEmap International in Vancouver. However, he added, 250,000 birds are killed by flying into windows every year.

"The cleanup cost was $2.1 billion, with a 50 percent reach," Pitzer told an audience at a June 25 session of the American Society of Safety Engineers' (ASSE) 2007 Professional Development Conference in Orlando, Fla. "That means that only 50 percent of Prince William Sound was cleaned."

Six years after the cleanup, a study was conducted to determine ecological recovery in the sound. What researchers found was that the areas that were not cleaned were in better shape – with more wildlife and cleaner water and soil – than the areas that had been cleaned. The chemicals and high-pressure washing used to "clean" the area had destroyed the ecosystem in some parts of Prince William Sound.

"The environmental disaster was the cleanup," said Pitzer.

The Power of Perceptions

Pitzer said that Exxon knew that the cleanup would be prohibitively expensive and, in large part, pointless. But the company was forced – by public perception that cleaning the area was the best practice and, in part, by public outcry against the company – into the cleanup effort.

"That is the power of values, perceptions and beliefs in action," said Pitzer.

In his presentation, Pitzer examined how values, beliefs and perceptions impact safety, and how our society's perception of risk is changing. Traditional risk models:

Have rational values.

Promote achieving the best.

Believe that threats are unknown.

Believe that risks are ordinary.

The new risk model, which Pitzer calls a "risk society," involves irrational values, argues for preventing the worst, believes that threats are known, focuses on guilt for not preventing risk and sensationalizes risk.

As an example, he pointed to the banning of DDT as a pesticide. DDT is a very effective way to kill mosquitoes, but it also contributes to health effects in birds and animals. The book "Silent Spring" brought the attention of the world to the health impact of DDT on birds, and played a role in the eventual banning of the pesticide."    (Continued via Occupational Hazards)    [Ergonomics Resources]

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