Monday, December 29, 2014

Acceptable Risk: The Discussion Continues

After the blog on “Acceptable Risk” I received an email and phone call from Harry Ettinger who, in addition to being a friend and colleague, is a Past President of the American Industrial Hygiene Association.  Harry has been around a long time and has a wealth of knowledge, wisdom and perspective.  Harry suggests that “Acceptable Risk” is an important subject that deserves additional attention.  He encouraged a panel discussion at a future AIHCE to air out the issues around this topic and the companion subjects:  “how safe is safe enough and how clean is clean enough”.    

If any readers of this blog are interested in participating on such a panel, please let me know ( and I will put you on the list of potential participants.

Harry goes on to make the following points:

  •        There is probably no definitive answer that will satisfy everyone (or perhaps anyone)
  •         It depends on which side of the fence you are sitting on.
  •         It needs

o    a balance so that the greatest good (whatever that means)       
o   to be is provided
§   to the greatest number of people who are most important (however that is measured)  
§  by ethical/unbiased/knowledgeable  decision makers (if these decision makers can be found or even exist)
§   in a long term time frame (rather than short term) 

Harry points out that, unfortunately, we typically define acceptable risk, to a large extent, on the basis of:

§  who has the most political clout
§  shouts the loudest
§  short term considerations
§  media influence
§  risk that has typically already been accepted

Harry advises that consideration should be added to any discussion of “acceptable risk” relative to the subjective perception and psychology regarding the source of the risk. 

He reminds us that we kill 38,000 people a year (approximately 100 deaths a day) in car incidents, and do not think very long about this death rate. We know that reducing the speed limit will reduce the death rate but when this restriction was introduced, many people objected.  Indeed,  New Mexico currently has a 75 mph speed limit on its Interstate.   If a rail car carrying chemicals such as Chlorine/Ammonia/shale oil/etc. derails, the subject is off the front page of the newspaper in 2-3 days (even if there are fatalities). If that same rail car was carrying protective clothing with minimal radioactive contamination (that is not readily released) the uproar would continue indefinitely.

Harry suggests that another topic to add to the discussion is that acceptable risk changes over time. What was unacceptable today was acceptable 10-20 years ago, and may or may not be acceptable in the future.  He believes that the definition of acceptable risk varies as a function of time and where it happens, and other relative risks extant at the time. This suggests that the 1/1000 definition in the benzene decision (which we still quote and use) probably needs to be updated.

I appreciate Harry providing his considerable insight on this subject and encourage you all to weigh in on this important topic.   As I get older I am beginning to appreciate more and more why some tribal folks highly value their elders. 


  1. This is a interesting topic, especially the political/media point which in my opinion is well illustrated in professional sports and the recent discussions on head trauma. I recently watched the documentary film " Head Games" and I lost count of the times " acceptable risk " was mentioned by the various athletes who were interviewed. Where people who have a interest if their team needs a star player to win or the athlete themselves feels it is okay to potential suffer further neural damage as acceptable risk to get back in the game when the mounting evidence indicates that long after the head injury event or events that one could develop serious impairment or even early death. But if the situation is not for an athletic event and is instead an occupational work setting you would be more inclined to not put yourself in a situation that you would receive numerous head injuries on purpose and the acceptable risk is evaluated entirely differently. But this seemed to bring the point of what decisions are made using the term acceptable risk and specific occupations.

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