Sunday, January 4, 2015

Acceptable Risk: Personal Gut Check

As Exposure and Risk Assessors we typically sit at the center point of imploding pressures.   We have distinct responsibility to at least 3 external groups; namely, our charges, our employers and our profession.   In addition, I believe from a moral and ethical perspective, we need to be responsible to ourselves. 

Our charges are the folks on the receiving end of any exposure to chemicals that might result from our analyses and recommendations.   When we do risk assessments for this group we are often forced into the role of risk manager and this has some strong implications for us.  Please let me explain why I say this. 
When we commit to doing a risk assessment, it of course needs to come to a conclusion relative to the risk.   In the world of Industrial Hygiene this is often the comparison of the predicted or measured exposure (EXP) to the Occupational Exposure Limit (OEL).   When EXP/OEL is less (hopefully much less) than 1, the risk assessment has a happy face: J.   This risk is considered to be “acceptable” or at least not unacceptable (see previous blogs on this topic).   At this point the risk assessment report normally gets written.   If, however, the ratio of EXP/OEL is 1 or greater than unity we have: L.   Typically, this means the application of some risk management option to choke down the EXP so that we can have a J and the report gets written at that point.   In a long career I do not ever remember writing a report that said the risk was unacceptable.  In essence the risk assessor is forced to become a risk manager before his or her report can be written with a happy face.

All of this presupposes that the EXP was accurately estimated and the OEL is an appropriate measure of an exposure level that presents an acceptable risk.   Whether this is true or not are issues for other discussions but for purposes of this treatise; let us assume it is true.

In doing a risk assessment we need to come to grips with issues around the safety of our charges and the needs of our employers.   We do this while staying true to the precepts and standards of our profession.   Almost all of this typically involves discussion and decisions involving money and where we as a professional draw the line on what we “believe” is reasonably acceptable risk.

I have never found balancing these needs to be easy.  We as the assessors are, of course, human with our own set of needs.   Some of which I am listing below:
  • To assure the health and safety of the workers relative to this risk
  • To surprise and delight the boss or client relative to our ability to add value to the organization
    • remain "promotable" as an employee
    • remain "on contract" as a consultant
  • To assure our livelihood:
    • maintain income and a lifestyle
    • provide well for our families
    • educate our children
  • To feel good about what we are doing in our careers and as a human being

It really is not simple to balance these.  For example, you could stay employed and keep you job but still be considered a "problem" with your employer.  On the other hand, you have to be part of the team with your boss and be invested in the success of the organization.

For me this all boils down to a specific and not very complicated personal  “gut check” I have for any risk assessment that I am willing to write and sign:  Would I allow a member of my family to be exposed to the occupational scenarios I am declaring to be acceptably safe?    If I would then I feel like I can endorse the analysis and conclusions.

I am not suggesting that this is the only standard; it is simply mine.  I admit to being extremely fortunate and grateful in my career because this standard never forced me to decide between employment and professional and personal integrity with my previous employer of 35 years or my current or past clients. Somehow I only wind up with the type of client that seems to subliminally understand and appreciates this position.  If I lived in another time, place or circumstance, I am frankly not sure I could have maintained this standard.   My point is that I believe we should all have a “gut check” to gauge our bottom line with clients, employers and ourselves.  I believe we all need to keep our personal standard in mind when we are put into the position of determining and ultimately managing acceptable risk for other human beings. 

The general subject of “acceptable risk” has generated a remarkable amount of interest and comment from readers of this blog.    Indeed, last week’s blog is on track to be the most popular post in almost 90 previous offerings.   We have begun work on what will probably be a Roundtable on this subject at the 2016 AIHA Conference in Baltimore.  

Human Health Risk Assessment is, after all, a human pursuit and, in the end, quite personal.  I would love to hear from folks reading this blog about your personal “gut checks” in doing human health risk assessment.

1 comment:

  1. Truly successful companies are those whose management and culture understand that risk assessment is an essential tool to make good decisions. Regardless of the outcome of the risk assessment, happy or sad face, the performance of a risk assessment provides the insight that allows for a data based decision that ultimately results in better processes and products. A no decision is often as important as a yes decision in getting to commercial success. Being safe for man and the environment is an essential element of the successful product and where the brains and guts of the risk assessor shine.