Controlling Risks in the Community, Workplace and Environment

Recommendations from the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Committee on Environmental and Occupational Health

A comprehensive analytical review of the risk assessment, risk management and risk communication approaches currently being undertaken by key national, provincial/state, territorial and international agencies was undertaken by experts from 3 three Canadian universities for the F/P/T Committee on Environmental & Occupational Health. The information acquired for review was used to identify the differences, commonalties, strengths and weaknesses among the various approaches. The review-identified elements that should be included in an effective, current, comprehensive approach to decision making in the regulation and control of environmental, human health and occupational health risks.

Based on the comprehensive review of these frameworks, seven key elements that should be included in a comprehensive framework for human health, environmental and occupational risk assessment and management was identified.

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The 7 Key elements in the Assessment and Management of Risk

  1. Problem Formulation Stage
  2. Stakeholder Involvement
  3. Communication
  4. Quantitative Risk Assessment Components
  5. Iteration and Evaluation
  6. Informed Decision-Making
  7. Flexibility

Based on this comprehensive approach to risk management, the following “checklist” was proposed to ensure good risk management decisions:

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A Checklist for Making Good Decisions about Risk

  • Make sure you’re solving the right problem.
  • Consider the problem and the risk within the full context of the situation, using a broad perspective.
  • Acknowledge, incorporate and balance the multiple dimensions of risk.
  • Ensure the highest degree of reliability for all components of the risk management process.
  • Involve interested and affected parties from the outset of the process.
  • Commit to honest and open communication between all parties.
  • Employ continuous evaluation throughout the process (formative, process and outcome evaluation), and be prepared to change the decision if new information becomes available.

Comprehensive and sound principles are critical to providing structure and integrity to risk management frameworks. Guiding principles are intended to provide an ethical grounding for considering the many factors involved in risk management decision-making. Nine ethical principles were proposed to guide risk management decision-making.

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Risk Management Principals

The nine decision-making principles are listed below, with the corresponding ethical principles:

  1. Do more good than harm (beneficence, non-maleficence). The ultimate goal of good risk management is to prevent or minimize risk, or to “do good” as much as possible.
  2. Fair process of decision-making (fairness, natural justice). Risk management must be just, equitable, impartial, unbiased, dispassionate, and objective as far as possible given the circumstances of each situation.
  3. Ensure an equitable distribution of risk (equity). An equitable process of risk management would ensure fair outcomes and equal treatment of all concerned through an equal distribution of benefits and burdens (includes the concept of distributive justice, i.e. equal opportunities for all individuals).
  4. Seek optimal use of limited risk management resources (utility). Optimal risk management demands using limited resources where they will achieve the most risk reduction or overall benefit.
  5. Promise no more risk management than can be delivered (honesty). Unrealistic expectations of risk management can be avoided with honest and candid public accounting of what we know and don’t know, and what we can and can’t do using risk assessment and risk management.
  6. Impose no more risk than you would tolerate yourself (the Golden Rule). The Golden Rule is important in risk management because it forces decision-makers to abandon complete detachment from their decisions so they may understand the perspectives of those affected.
  7. Be cautious in the face of uncertainty (“better safe than sorry”). Risk management must adopt a cautious approach when faced with a potentially serious risk, even if the evidence is uncertain.
  8. Foster informed risk decision-making for all stakeholders (autonomy). Fostering autonomous decision-making involves both providing people with the opportunity to participate, and full and honest disclosure of all the information required for informed decisions.
  9. Risk management processes must be flexible and evolutionary to be open to new knowledge and understanding (evolution, evaluation, and iterative process). The incorporation of new evidence requires that risk management is a flexible, evolutionary and iterative process, and that evaluation is employed at the beginning and throughout the process.

The foregoing principles reflect the reality that each risk management scenario will be different and no single approach can be expected to satisfy all of the different challenges that are likely to be encountered in addressing real problems. However, to satisfy the need for some guidance about how to implement a risk management program, a detailed benchmark framework for risk management was developed and provided in the Appendix. The framework is intended to provide an operational template that is suitable for implementing a benchmark framework for risk management.

Some key features to consider with regard to implementing a framework for risk management are the time horizons and functional levels within an organization. Time horizons can range from long-range issues dealing with strategic risks, medium term issues that relate to tactical risks and short-term issues that relate to operational risks. The functional levels within the organization will normally include: decision-making, policy analysis, supervision and monitoring, and operations. Effective implementation of a risk management framework requires a two-way process that allows effective transfer of information from inside and outside organizations with responsibility for controlling risks. This should include deciding on which risks need to be addressed and the respective roles of those individuals, groups and organizations responsible for assessing and controlling the risk.

Risk management will continue to be a balancing act of competing priorities and needs. Flexibility and good judgment are ultimately the key to successfully making appropriate risk decisions.

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Annex 1

Factors Affecting Risk Perception

People’s perception of risk may be influenced by factors other than its magnitude. The following factors may have more affect on the acceptability of risk than the estimated magnitude of either the individual or population risk.

  • Risks perceived to be voluntary are more acceptable than risks perceived to be imposed.
  • Risks perceived to be under an individual’s control are more accepted than risks perceived to be controlled by others.
  • Risks perceived to have clear benefits are more accepted than risks perceived to have little or no benefit.
  • Risks perceived to be fairly distributed are more accepted than risks perceived to be unfairly distributed.
  • Risks perceived to be natural are more accepted than risks perceived to be manmade.
  • Risks perceived to be statistical are more accepted than risks perceived to be catastrophic.
  • Risks perceived to be generated by a trusted source are more accepted than risks perceived to be generated by an entrusted source.
  • Risks perceived to be familiar are more accepted than risks perceived to exotic.
  • Risks perceived to affect adults are more accepted than risks perceived to affect children.

Ref: Fischhoff B, Lichtenstein S, Slovic P, Keeney D. 1981. Acceptable Risk. Cambridge, Mass: Cambridge University Press.

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Annex 2

Seven Cardinal Rules of Risk Management

  1. Accept and involve the public as a partner. Your goal is to produce an informed public, not to defuse public concerns or replace actions.
  2. Plan carefully and evaluate your efforts. Different goals, audiences and media require different actions.
  3. Listen to the public’s specific concerns. People often care more about trust, credibility, competence, fairness, and empathy than about statistics and details.
  4. Be honest, frank, and open. Trust and credibility are difficult to obtain; once lost, they are almost impossible to regain.
  5. Work with other credible sources. Conflicts and disagreements among organizations make communication with the public much more difficult.
  6. Meet the needs of the media. The media are usually more interested in politics than risk, simplicity than complexity, danger than safety.
  7. Speak clearly and with compassion. Never let your efforts prevent your acknowledging the tragedy of an illness, injury, or death.

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Ref: Covello V, Allen F. 1988. Seven Cardinal Rules of Risk Communication. US Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Policy Analysis, Washington, DC.