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1-5 Voluntary and Involuntary Risk

Chemical plant employees are aware of and trained to handle the risks that are found in their work environment—this is a legal requirement in the United States and most countries worldwide. In contrast, people in the surrounding community may not be fully aware of these risks or may not understand the risks and the associated probabilities and consequences. This difference in understanding can arise because the plant may not have properly communicated these risks to the community, new risks may have been introduced in the plant over time, or people may have moved into the community without any understanding of the risk.

People are more willing to accept risks if these are carefully explained to them—including the probabilities and potential consequences. Certainly, most car drivers understand the risks of driving a car. However, people become outraged when an industrial accident occurs that involves risks of which they were not fully aware or risks with higher actual likelihoods and/or consequences than perceived.

As an example, suppose you purchase a house for your family. Ten years later, you learn that the house was built on top of a toxic waste dump. The consequences are the adverse effects to the health of your family and a dramatic reduction in the value of your house. Certainly, you would be outraged.

A voluntary risk is “risk that is consciously tolerated by someone seeking to obtain the benefits of the activity that poses the risk.”3 An example of a voluntary risk is driving or riding in a car: Most people are aware that automobile accidents occur and accept this risk. An involuntary risk is “risk that is imposed on someone who does not directly benefit from the activity that poses the risk.”4 Examples of involuntary risk include riding an airplane, visiting a mall, and walking down the street. Living near a chemical plant or other manufacturing facility is also an involuntary risk. Individuals are typically willing to accept more voluntary risk (by a factor of 10 or more) versus involuntary risk.

A community outreach program is a very important part of any process safety program for a company and plant site. The plant officials must carefully explain the risks—including both the probabilities and the consequences—to any community that may be impacted by these risks. This effort is part of stakeholder outreach—where the set of stakeholders includes the employees, contractors, neighboring communities, neighboring companies, suppliers, customers, company stockholders, and other possible communities. The public considers chemical plants to pose a higher risk than is actually the case, so chemical plants must make a better effort to communicate these risks.

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