January 26, 2023 / Abby Roberts

Communicating Risk With Empathy

Mike Larrañaga, PhD, CIH, PE, FAIHA, president and managing principal of R.E.M. Risk Consultants, seemed to be at an impasse. One of the consulting firm’s clients was under an OSHA abatement period for overexposing employees to a hazardous substance. Yet the client did not want to take the steps necessary to protect employees by fitting them with respirators and implementing engineering controls, even though the business faced legal consequences if it did not meet its abatement date.

This was not the only instance during Larrañaga’s 30-year career in industrial hygiene where he had encountered people who resisted taking actions that would keep themselves and others safe. But, in his own words, Larrañaga considered his job to be “helping others understand risk.”

The vice president of safety and health at 3M Company, Perry Logan, PhD, CIH, also considered communicating risk to be an essential part of his work. “My whole job is about risk,” he said, “managing risk, risk perception, and risk controls.” While Larrañaga worked with clients to help them understand risk, Logan’s job involved communicating risk within 3M. Many occupational and environmental health and safety (OEHS) professionals also have duties to communicate risk to others, such as clients, executives, employees, and members of the public.

Logan pointed out that OEHS professionals’ role of identifying and managing hazards and exposures gave them a structure for communicating risk. “The problem is, we have often approached risk communication through a regulatory lens when, in fact, that won’t resonate for many people,” he continued. “So, we’ve got to figure out how we equip everyone with some basic tools in understanding risk, in being able to communicate in a simple and empathetic way.”

Why Do People Struggle to Understand Risk?

Both professionals have come to the same understanding about the importance of empathy in risk communication, but first, it’s important to examine why people may have difficulty understanding risk. Larrañaga explained that a psychological phenomenon known as “prospecting” leads people to take actions to avoid negative consequences as opposed to pursuing positive outcomes. “What prospecting theory tells us is that people hate to lose more than they love to win,” said Larrañaga.

The loss aversion heuristic, first identified by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, underlies the prospecting phenomenon. Loss aversion may motivate, for example, the leadership of a town in a region prone to severe weather to believe the town won’t be affected in the future, even if history indicates otherwise, and therefore to neglect issuing ordinances that will keep residents safe. Or a human resources department may ignore warning signs leading up to an incident of workplace violence that they assumed would never happen.

A factor contributing to prospecting bias and human decision-making in general is the immense volume of information that people encounter every day. “We’ve got significant volumes of information coming at us each day, and it’s really hard to see the signal through all the noise,” said Logan. “I’m making judgments with one piece of information at a time, yet the world is much more complex than that.”

Larrañaga agreed. “We have all these signals, and our mind focuses on signals that we want to focus on,” he said. “We prioritize signals based on our experiences, and then we make decisions based on how we prioritize these signals.”

One key implication of the human need to prioritize information is that people generally focus more on facts that fit their beliefs and values than change their beliefs and values to reflect facts. With regard to risk, this means that they will assign more importance to facts that point toward their desired outcome—or the lack of negative outcomes, as described by the prospecting phenomenon.

The Need for Empathy

Because value systems are so critical to decision-making, effective risk communication requires understanding, empathizing with, and communicating within the value system of the person responsible for managing risk, even if you disagree with their values. The good news is that, although your value system reflects your individual experience, even people with very different experiences tend to ultimately have similar value systems on a basic level. “We’re more aligned than we are apart,” said Larrañaga, “but we wouldn’t think that because of the way that we receive information.”

Still, people generally struggle to accept value systems they perceive as different from their own. In Larrañaga and Logan’s experiences, communicating risk and convincing people to adopt control measures required overcoming this tendency. As OEHS professionals, their role is to help people be safer and healthier, not to begin a debate. “You have to be willing to understand that people might not agree with what you’re trying to accomplish,” said Larrañaga. “You have to be OK with that. And that’s very hard for people to do.”

Logan added, “what you’ve got to start with, in order to even begin the conversation, is empathy and understanding through authentic listening.”

In the case of Larrañaga’s client, who was overexposing employees to a hazardous substance, convincing them to implement controls ultimately required making them aware of the stringent consequences of neglecting to do so. But Larrañaga had understood why his client was so strongly committed to doing things their way. As a family-owned company, the client had been doing business in a particular way for some time, was proud of their method, and objected to the possibility of changing it.

Instead of judgment, Logan stressed that an OEHS professional should seek to understand people’s fears, values, and concerns, meeting them where they are to communicate risk. This is not easy without training and awareness. Then, he shared an anecdote involving his family, which occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Logan’s mother was at high risk for a severe outcome if she contracted COVID-19, yet she wasn’t vaccinated. He was conscientious in how he began the conversation about steps she could take to reduce her risk. “What I couldn’t do was judge her, and I couldn’t try to change her mind. I could only say to her, ‘Look, Mom, I care about you deeply. And here’s what I’m concerned with,’” said Logan. “And what that allows is for her to share her views, and we can talk through that.”

During the conversation, Logan learned that his mother’s hesitation toward getting vaccinated was related to her fear of doctors, which developed when she was a young child living in Germany after World War II. Because this experience had occurred at such a formative period of her life, her fears and concerns were embedded in the neural pathways of her brain. “In order for her to overcome that,” Logan explained, “she would actually have to build new neural pathways.” This is why “you can never change somebody’s value system,” he continued. “You should only approach it with empathy.”

Teaching Empathy

Larrañaga and Logan asserted that while direct attempts to change people’s minds are rarely effective, empathy, understanding, lack of judgment, and, often, a little time help people to understand risk and accept the need to take action. They recounted a colleague's conference presentation, which he opened by asking the audience whether preventing workplace violence was included in industrial hygienists’ responsibilities. Only about 20 of the 200 audience members had raised their hands. After carefully explaining why workplace violence met the industrial hygiene criteria for a psychosocial stressor, the speaker asked the same question. This time, about half the participants raised their hands. Larrañaga elaborated that his colleague was successful because he’d had this conversation in an environment where the audience was already engaged, and he was willing to walk them through his evidence.

It's also possible to teach people the empathy and listening skills that are necessary for conversations about risk and hazards to be effective, even though OEHS professionals are often not taught such skills in their degrees. In fact, Larrañaga and Logan plan to do just that at AIHce EXP 2023, where they will host a professional development course titled “Communicating Risk in an Age of Uncertainty” with their co-instructors John Comiskey, EdD, and Jason Kunz, PhD, CIH. The PDC will allow participants to practice using empathy to overcome their impulse to judge others in a safe environment.

Larrañaga and Logan hope that the PDC will attract a diverse pool of participants and see their role as facilitators more than lecturers. “Essentially, we’ll be learning from every single person in the room,” said Logan. “Everyone will be learning from everyone else.”

“PDC 103: Communicating Risk in an Age of Uncertainty” is scheduled for Saturday, May 20, 2023, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mountain time. AIHce EXP 2023 will be held May 22–24, both virtually and on-site at Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. To view the program or to register, visit the conference website.

To learn more about empathy in industrial hygiene, read "Harnessing the Hidden Power of Empathy" in the May 2022 Synergist.

Abby Roberts

Abby Roberts is the editorial assistant for The Synergist.


Industrial Hygienist

In situations with adverse participants a disarming skill is empathetic listening...and like Larranaga pointed out, it is not taught in a IH 301 course. This skill has to be sharpened in our daily work until we become influential, and that begins to resemble leadership. We will most likely have to place ourselves in uncomfortably vulnerable positions and sometimes we may have to endure some hostility. That could be a tall order for a person with an abnormally large ego.

By Mark Graham on January 27, 2023 10:30am

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