This is the fifth in a series of risk communication columns I have been asked to write for The Synergist, the journal of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. The columns appear both in the journal and on this website. This column appears (more or less identical except for copyediting details) in the July 2004 issue of The Synergist, pp. 24–25.

A few months ago I wrote a column about what to do “When People Are ‘Over-Reacting’ to Risk” (The Synergist, February 2004, pp. 22, 24). This column focuses on the other side of the coin, the more traditional problem – faced by industrial hygienists every day – of employees and others who fail to take risks seriously enough.

When you think people are under-reacting to a risk, the usual diagnosis is “apathy” and the usual prescription is some mix of safety advocacy (“this could kill you!”) and safety training (“here’s how to protect yourself”). As the list suggests, a different diagnosis should lead to a different prescription.

Unlike the previous list, this one is in a sort of chronological order. Don’t worry about the questions at the bottom of the list until you have eliminated the ones at the top. But many companies that have devoted a lot of effort to the questions at the top of the list may have picked that low-hanging fruit already. If your company’s safety record made huge strides a few years ago and then hit a plateau, you may be ready for the bottom of the list.

1. Are you sure they’re under-reacting?

Might they be taking the risk more seriously than you’re giving them credit for, only pretending to shrug it off? Might you be taking the risk more seriously than it deserves, doing your industrial hygienist thing? Might they be in denial rather than apathetic, too terrified to let themselves feel it rather than insufficiently alarmed? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, trying to make the risk seem more serious is the wrong approach.

2. Can you engineer the problem away?

Reducing the risk is sometimes easier and more effective than getting people to take precautions. Especially if the risk is your fault in the first place, you have an obligation to think about what you can do to reduce or eliminate it. Instead of fighting with your employees about why they should wear their respirators, try to get management to stop emitting toxic fumes. If there is a feasible, cost-effective engineering answer, risk communication is a pallid (even an unethical) replacement for it.

3. Are they ignorant?

My clients lean far too much on this explanation, assuming that the problem is education when it isn’t. But sometimes it is! If there are truths people don’t know that would persuade them to take the risk more seriously, then this is the place to start.

4. Are they misinformed?

Misinformation is much harder to correct than ignorance. If there are misimpressions or falsehoods people think they know that are keeping them from taking the risk seriously enough, you have to start where they are. Acknowledge the reasonableness of their opinion before you explain why it’s wrong. You can’t just ignore what they think they know.

5. Do they know how to protect themselves?

Education is about the information people have. Training, on the other hand, is about their skills. Some industrial “training” programs are too information-focused, with too much book-learning and too little skills drill. Other programs make the opposite mistake; employees learn what to do and how to do it, but it doesn’t stick because they don’t understand why they should take it to heart. The information base comes first. Then the skills training is key.

6. Do they know they know?

One common reason for under-reacting to a risk is feeling that you don’t know what to do or how to do it … even though in fact you do. A closely related phenomenon is believing that the precautions probably won’t work anyway. These are less training issues than they are issues of self-efficacy. When people feel powerless, wallowing in apathy isn’t irrational. So if you don’t want people to wallow in apathy, make sure they’re not powerless and know they’re not powerless. Give them things to do – a menu of things to do, so they can make their own choices. And take seriously the task of persuading them that they can implement the precautions, and that the precautions can work.

7. Are they paying attention?

Even when people are well-informed, well-trained, and feeling efficacious, they may still forget to stay focused on the risk you want them focused on. They get busy and it falls off their radar screens. Or a different problem replaces it on their worry agenda. Or they’re just daydreaming. Big improvements are possible by continually reminding people about the risks they should worry about and the precautions they should take. Bigger improvements are possible by teaching them how to keep reminding themselves.

8. Is there a “motivated inattention” problem?

Sometimes when people aren’t paying attention to a risk it’s not because they’re busy or daydreaming or worried about a different risk. It’s because they don’t want to pay attention to that particular risk. Motivated inattention can have many sources. I have a list of 16 for employees and a list of 24 for employers that I use in my seminars. Among the ones on the employee list: “It can’t happen”; “it can’t be prevented”; “you can’t scare me”; “I’m terrified”; “that’s not my culture”; “my friends would laugh at me”; and “my boss doesn’t mean it about safety.” These reasons for ignoring a risk can be dealt with – but only if they have been properly diagnosed.

9. Can you get them more outraged at the risk?

This is the activist solution when people are under-reacting to a risk: Mobilize their outrage. Depending on your issue, your employer, and your own opinions, you may or may not want to avail yourself of this powerful tool. If you do, think about the safety advocacy campaigns you admire. MADD on drunk driving? Smokey on forest fires? Some of the anti-smoking campaigns? Think through which three or four outrage components you can most effectively trigger in your particular situation. Control? Trust? Responsiveness? Dread? Now plan your campaign.

10. Can you get them more outraged at others for creating or tolerating the risk?

People are likeliest to take precautions after they have angrily demanded that others take those precautions. To get homeowners to test their homes for radon, for example, it helps if you first get them to demand that the school test their children’s classrooms. Similarly, employees who have pushed management to institute better safety precautions are less likely to ignore the precautions they fought for.

11. Can you get them less outraged at the precautions?

We all spend our childhoods outraged not at risk but at precaution-taking; from toilet training to college to marriage, our parents keep spoiling our fun with all those warnings. This often survives into adulthood: “How dare that safety manager make me wear those goggles!” “How dare the government make me wear that seat belt!” Reducing people’s outrage about the precautions is a powerful strategy for getting them to take a risk more seriously – as powerful as increasing their outrage about the risk itself.

Copyright © 2004 by Peter M. Sandman