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Risk Perception: Friend or Foe?

We all know that hazards are present everywhere in our daily lives, from driving to work to our individual hobbies. Life is full of risk. What is important to note about risk is how we perceive it each day, and the judgment calls we make as to whether or not the risk or hazard will affect us. For example, a smoker may be well aware that cigarettes are dangerous and lead to a variety of health problems, but still smoke because he or she believes they won’t get sick. (Sorry to pick on you smokers!) This is a classic example of low risk perception.

Jessica Bohan MPH, CSP, OHST

Jessica Bohan MPH, CSP, OHST

According to Tierney, Lindell and Perry in their research, Facing the Unexpected: Disaster Preparedness and Response in the United States1, personalizing risk is a key factor in predicting our ability in how we protect ourselves. This means that if we believe an event of occurrence can happen to us, then we will try to protect ourselves from that event occurring. In order to protect ourselves from the risk or hazard, however, we must understand what the hazard is, how it can harm us and the likelihood it will harm us.

There are a variety of studies regarding risk behavior and natural disasters. Researchers have tried to uncover the factors, such as frequency of personal thought or responding to repeated messages, that influence personal preparedness. The Tierney, Lindell and Perry study indicated that frequent thoughts about disasters can help influence people to take steps or mitigate hazards prior to a disaster striking an area. However, other researchers do not agree that personal concern influences preparedness or mitigation activities and that repetitive messages about hazards can influence preparedness behavior.

Although these studies focused on natural disaster preparedness and mitigation activities, one may conclude that many of these ideas regarding personalizing risk are applicable to the work environment. Personal knowledge, frequent communication of risks/hazards and hazard experience are concepts that can be applied to the industrial world to help raise awareness and prevent injuries, illnesses and damage to equipment.

Case Study: Kleen Energy Systems

In February 2010, while employees were constructing a power plant in Connecticut, a horrific explosion took place, killing 6 workers and injuring 50 more2. According to an OSHA news release3, the workers were using hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of natural gas to clean debris from gas pipes used to fuel electricity-producing turbines. The practice of using gas blows to clean out debris is common in the construction of electric generating facilities. A large amount of gas accumulated into areas where it could not be properly dispersed. Welding and other operations were located nearby, and the accumulated gas contacted an ignition source. (Note: gas flowing through piping can also cause an accumulation of static electricity.)

April 2011 Consultants Corner_Kleen Energy Systems_Jessica Bohan

Kleen Energy Systems before the February 2010 gas explosion.

Although there is no current OSHA standard that prohibits gas blows to the atmosphere for the purpose of cleaning fuel gas piping, it is an inherently dangerous practice. There are viable alternatives to gas blowing such as using compressed air or non-flammable, non-explosive media. (Note: OSHA fined the general contractor and two main sub-contractors a total of $16.6 million in penalties; 14 other sub-contractors were cited with $686,000 in penalties.)

This leads to the question of why did workers use natural gas when there are reasonable alternatives? I’m sure there are many reasons employees used natural gas instead of other methods in this case. No matter the reasons, is it possible that the risk perception of the employees played a role?

April 2011 Consultants Corner_Kleen Energy Systems after_Jessica Bohan

Kleen Energy Systems after the fatal 2010 gas explosion.

What does risk perception mean for you in your workplace? Are you or your fellow employees used to working around hazards? Are you surprised when an outside auditor such as your insurance company, the local fire marshal or a consultant from the USF SafetyFlorida Consultation program finds a hazard that you or the safety committee has not noticed during your work site assessments? It is easy to lose risk perception as we work near equipment, machinery or with chemicals every day.


1 Tierney, K., Lindell, M., & Perry, R., (2001). Facing the Unexpected: Disaster Preparedness and Response in the United States. Joseph Henry Press: Washington, D.C

2 Occupational Safety and Health Administration (2010, August).

3 Occupational Safety and Health Administration (2010, August). News Release. Retrieved March 1, 2011 from http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=NEWS_RELEASES&p_id=18117

Kleen Energy Systems before photo:


Kleen Energy Systems after photo: