Everyone of us faces threats to our safety and life almost every day such that, in essence, life itself is a risky business. However, some situations and working environments appear to be risky. One may wonder how we are supposed to deal with all these risks. For example, how should factories be compelled to reduce all hazardous working conditions? In the ideological sense, it would be proposed that since it is unethical to purposefully inflict risks on other people, factory owners and policy makers have the absolute duty of eliminating all recognized risks to their employees. In reality, this will be a futile attempt since almost all human activities involve an element of risk. For instance, even a machine that is perfectly serviced and maintained cannot function properly all the time. Furthermore, even a predictably cautious employee can trip and fall on an even floor.
These are just some of the risks that are well known, yet they cannot be eliminated totally. Therefore, our main goal should be to reduce risks in so far as it is realistically possible. The process of analyzing potential risks with the aim of reducing their likelihood is referred to as risk assessment. This paper will discuss the risk assessment practice and the ethical complexities that have led to the extension of the conventional framework.
The Risk Assessment Process
The standard risk assessment procedure begins with the conception of two variables: hazard and probability of occurrence. Depending on the circumstances, hazards can be defined in terms of falls, trips, mild injuries, serious injuries or death. On the other hand, quantifying the precise probability value of risk might be a futile process since it entails approximation. Usually, it is difficult to foresee the distant future in greater detail since events in our organizations as well as our actions as humans are not particularly predictable. In the same breath, certain actions by outsiders cannot be accounted for well in advance before they actually occur. For instance, acts of sabotage, terrorism or ignorance cannot be predicted with certainty since the would-be perpetrators remain unknown. In any case, they cannot be ruled altogether. Human errors by workers cannot be quantified with certainty, even though they are probably the likeliest to pose the greatest risk on the long term.
Since precise quantification is unreliable, the usual practice for risk assessors is to use definitive terms such as highly unlikely, unlikely, likely, and highly likely. While this might appear straightforward, it is hardly the case due to a number of factors. For example, the same type of hazard can come from different possible causes. Let us take the case of death due to a house fire. In the past, some people have died of house fires because of electrical faults. These faults could have been caused by negligent workmanship, small rodents gnawing at electrical wires or planned arson. In each case, the death is equally horrific. However, the causes are not equally morally liable.
Let us assume that a particularly society has decided to lessen the number of deaths as a result of house fires. This implies that it will put forth policies to address each of the three potential causes through better training of electricians, regular safety checks and enhanced policing to identify and punish arsonists. In many cases, not all these policies will be pursued with the same vigor. The standard procedure is to enforce the policy that will save the most lives at a lesser cost. For instance, it would be insensible to spend $2 million dollars on safety checks when house fires caused by rodents gnawing at wires occur once every ten years even without the checks. On the other hand, it would be insensible to spend the same amount on policing when arson attacks are the leading causes of house fires.
A standard risk assessment procedure carries out a cost effectiveness analysis to determine which policy would bring the best results at the lowest cost. In the house fire example, the best policy is one that would save the most lives at the availed budget. This also demonstrates another complexity of the risk assessment process: in many instances, it is impossible to eliminate all causes of all risks. This implies that assessors usually attempt to consider some causes and neglect the highly unlikely ones (though they cannot rule out that they never occur). Therefore, risk assessment entails making the judgment on processes through which risks are created with the aim of finding the priority. However, this is also not a straightforward procedure because, in general, people tend to worry about some processes more than others.
Historically, scholars have observed that people regard manmade hazards to be worse than natural hazards, even though their consequences might be identical. For example, the society dealing with house fires would consider arson attacks or poor workmanship to be more damaging than rodent attacks despite the fact that all three could cause death (Wolff 418). There are two possible explanations for this line of thinking. One, manmade hazards tend to cause more fear. Second, they generate greater outrage or moral concern. Consequently, a regular practice in risk assessment is to try to eliminate culpable behaviors that are blameworthy first. These behaviors come in several forms. The main forms include recklessness, malice, incompetence and negligence.
Recklessness is going ahead to carry out an act knowing fully well that it could cause risk but failing to take this into account when deciding whether or not to act. Malice refers to the act of setting out to deliberately impose risk or harm to another person. This behavior ignores all attempts to eliminate risks. Incompetence is the act of carrying out a risk assessment, identify potential risks and decide to take the right action only to fail to do so. Finally, negligence refers to failing to consider whether an action carries risks to another even though the risks are reasonably predictable. In general, we will blame organizations or people who are guilty of one of these behaviors. This shows why contemporary risk assessment must extend beyond the standard hazard-probability model. In the recent past, scholars have come up with models that try to accommodate additional variables such as cause, fear, anxiety, shame, reputation, negligence, incompetence, malice, and recklessness when carrying out a risk assessment. The two most popular approaches in this regard are the perception of risk model and the societal concern model.
The perception of risk model mainly focuses on how individuals perceive the gravity of a particular risk. As a consequence, some risks, which are perceived to be more serious, are given special concern. Such risks include categories that are dreaded. A real world example is the fear of cancer. In general, these risks include all those events or situations that are out of the control of individuals. This may be in terms of their inability to influence whether or not they are exposed to the risk or their lack of resources or strategies to mitigate the risk. For example, let us contrast a person travelling by air and the other by road. Once the journey is underway, an individual in a car has a significant degree of influence over events that may happen on the way. However, a person in a plane has a little, if any, measure on influencing how the plane flies. This passenger relies heavily on others and other natural phenomena. This overreliance creates a special concern (Wolff 421).
On the other hand, societal concern answers to the need to create a concept that will capture the notion that the society might be having concerns that go far beyond the sum of concern each person regarding his/her own life. However, how to distinguish this risk is difficult since its most important defining feature amounts to the negative, as opposed to the sum of all individual concerns (Wolff 421). Therefore, what can be included is always subject to a contest amongst the assessors. Theoretically, scientists usually attach a greater loss to agreeing to a falsehood than failing to recognize a truth. When it comes to societal decision making, especially under uncertainty, this may not always be appropriate. Making a decision for the society involves considering their rights and duties. It also takes into account the ethical consequences of the decisions and the effects they would have on the welfare of the individual persons. A pure scientific risk assessment considers only the epistemological consequences, which may not necessarily be beneficial (Shrader-Frechette 770).
With human rights now a special concern during risk assessment, assessors are going great lengths to embrace the societal concern model. Here, the society refers to the people that will be directly affected by the potential risk. Presently, the widely held belief is that it is more important to protect the people from possible harm than to provide for their welfare after they have been affected. An explanation for this reasoning may be that protecting from possible harm is an obligatory condition for enjoying other liberties. However, it is a challenge to draw the line between positive and negative duties or laws, and between protecting from harm and providing benefits. Moral philosophers have always persisted with honoring relating distinctions, such as killing someone and letting a person die. This suggests that it is more important to protect the community from potential hazards than to attempt to expand their welfare (Shrader-Frechette 770). In essence, it is essential to carry out a risk assessment than to wait until a hazard occurs so that to provide services to repair the damage. This implies that the field of risk assessment is extremely relevant in our contemporary society.
We are faced with risks everywhere we go such that everything about our lives is risky. Even activities that we normally enjoy carry some risk. Therefore, this calls for caution in what we do. However, the many variables of risk assessment have meant that we cannot possibly eliminate all risks. For one, we cannot predict with certainty that an event will happen precisely the way we foresee. As a result, the conventional hazard-probability has been expanded to include the moral aspects of risk assessment. The two most widely used approaches are perception to risk model and the societal concern model. Even though they are different theoretically, they all have a special concern to the general wellbeing of the relevant society. This wellbeing lies on their protection from harm.
Shrader-Frechette, Kristin S. “Environmental Risk and the Iron Triangle: The Case of Yucca Mountain. “Business Ethics Quarterly 5.4 (1995): 753-777.
Wolff, Jonathan. “Risk, fear, blame, shame and the regulation of public safety.” Economics and Philosophy 22.3 (2006): 409-427.