We all face risks. We face risk at home, at the gym, when out shopping, and at work. There are risks in our finances, risk in our relationships, and risks in the things we do. There are also risks that are very low in frequency, but very high in consequence such as natural disasters, violent crime, and terrorism.
Some risks we are forced to mitigate through regulated action such as having car insurance or wearing mandatory protective equipment. Other risks we get to decide how to best manage that risk such as buying travel insurance or an extended warranty plan for a new piece of technology.
There are also risks we take because, to us, they may provide a reward such as investing money or gambling, both of which have different levels of risk. We also take risks for non-monetary rewards such as self-esteem, looking good in front of a group of peers, or the feeling of honor. These socially-based rewards can be much more powerful than mere monetary rewards.
What is a hazard, risk, and risk tolerance?
In order to begin to understand risk tolerance, we need to discuss some of the simple terms. Terms such as hazard and risk are thrown around in some safety talks and training as if they are the same thing. Hopefully, this simple explanation will help delineate the difference because the first step in dealing with any issue is speaking the same language.
Recently, one of our family friends gave my son a Lego set to build. On the size of the box, it says “Ages 5-12” and “WARNING: CHOKING HAZARD. Small parts. Not for children under 3 years.”
Clearly, this is a hazard. I mean, it has to be right? It says so right on the box.
Is it only a hazard for children under 3? Is it still a hazard for children between 5-12? What about 4 year-olds? The toy is clearly not for them, but they are also not represented by the hazard label. How about me or you? Many an adult have uttered screams of pain two octaves higher than their normal voice after stepping on a block. Choking hazard? Sure. Pain-equal-to-that-of-stepping-on-a-nail hazard? I don’t have any studies to prove it, but would argue the answer is, “absolutely.”
So, hopefully we can agree, the toy is a hazard because it is something that can cause harm and therefore meets the definition of a hazard.
But what is its risk?
Would I let a three year old play with it with no one else in the room? Would I let the three year old in the room while a five year old builds it? Would I let a seven year old build it by themselves in a room with flooring that a dropped block would be easily found? Would I let a seven year old build it in a room with carpeting cut from a fabric pattern known as “Lego Camouflage?”
The answers to these questions are probably, “it depends.” It depends on context. It depends on specifics. What factors will increase or decrease the chance that the hazard will actually cause harm? I might let a three year old watch a five year old build the toy, but only with an adult in the room. Does the adult have to be close to the toy? Does the adult just have to be in the room? Does it matter if the adult loves watching a Steeler football game, the ball is about to be kicked, and there are hot nachos and cold drinks available?
When we talk about risk, we have to realize it is a flexible and moving target that truly does depend. The risk the adult may have been willing to tolerate 1 minute before kickoff may change as soon as the football is kicked and the Steelers begin marching their way toward a seventh Super Bowl ring.
Hazards and risks are both important concepts, and understanding the difference is the first step to understanding how we human beings tolerate risk.