A risk communication program that addresses only the quantitative, scientific risk and ignores people’s perceptions of risk will not reduce building occupants' concerns about environmental exposures. In fact, in most cases, this limited approach will increase occupant concerns. Exponentially.
“It’s important to realize that risk perception (i.e., occupant concerns) is not governed solely by objective, quantitative data,” said Kevin Coghlan, Director of Operations at Environmental Health & Engineering. “Risk perception is driven instead by psychological and social factors. If you don’t address these factors, risk perception usually overwhelms the actual quantitative risk. It can get very expensive to quell fears people might be having about an environmental exposure in a building. And understanding these non-technical factors are what really drive a building’s indoor environmental risk management program.”
Experts call the non-technical aspects of risk – the fears, concerns, anger and other emotions people have about a risk - the “outrage” factors. Outrage can be driven by many things: news stories, personal experiences, feelings of vulnerability, of being victimized and not in control of a situation, or unfamiliarity with a certain risk. A building’s indoor environment can be an especially fertile breeding ground for “outrage” factors.
Consider indoor air quality (IAQ) concerns as an example. “Occupants of a building are not familiar with a lot of the technologies used to control their environment,” Coghlan said. “They may start wondering, ‘it feels humid in my environment and my asthma is worse, I wonder if there is mold in this building?’ There are cases where the outrage, the perception of risk, is much higher than the risk itself.” In fact, it is exceedingly rare that indoor environmental exposures in office buildings represent a serious or imminent threat to human health. Yet, according to Mr. Coghlan, “EH&E has responded to countless situations where occupant ‘outrage’ was threatening to close the building.”
Environmental Health & Engineering’s risk communication program specializes in helping building owners and managers develop an effective strategy that identifies and addresses people’s perceptions about environmental risk in a facility, using sound scientific and management principles.
Proper Communication is Critical
“Effective risk communication is absolutely not a public relations campaign,” Coghlan said. “We’re not trying to stop the flow of information or spin a story. What we do is try to understand the concerns and anxieties people have and the underlying factors driving those concerns. Risk communication is a strategy that can help you decide how to allay people’s fears, and help people to maintain the proper perspective.” Coghlan said identifying the underlying drivers of people’s fears is critical to an effective risk communication strategy. “Once you understand what is driving that risk perception then you can develop a risk communication program that directly addresses those other factors.”
People’s concerns may be rooted in feelings of vulnerability, of not being in control over their exposure to a particular contaminant or other risk. A good risk communication strategy addresses their concerns by specifically targeting those control issues – for example, inviting employees to join a committee to investigate the complaints and report back to other employees. “So instead of feeling, ‘I’m the victim here,’ occupants are empowered, involved,” Coghlan said.
The Risk Communication Process
Effective risk communication always starts with good information. “You need sound, objective data on which to base your decisions,” Coghlan said. “What is the best estimate of the risk? What are the scientific data to back up this estimate? If there is a high degree of real risk, you need to deal with that as well. If the level of risk is small, you need to know that and what information that assessment is based on so you can make informed decisions about the rest of your risk communication program.” Of course, this approach requires the involvement of a professional in order to focus the response appropriately, and to avoid a lengthy, potential non-productive effort.
With the advent of the internet and rapid improvements in our telecommunication infrastructure, people have on-demand access to a wealth of information. As a result, building occupants are more sophisticated and knowledgeable about indoor environmental exposures. And many are misinformed by bad information that is readily available through the internet as well. Good, defensible data is more important than ever in this age of information to diffuse misperceptions fueled by the internet.
EH&E’s strong scientific team first helps owners and managers accurately characterize the level of real risk in a building. Based on that information, EH&E then develops an effective risk communication strategy that identifies the stakeholders – the people affected by the risk -- and characterizes their concerns and what is driving those concerns.
EH&E also helps managers implement the program, chairs employee committees and provides written materials and other information targeted to different audiences – occupants, neighbors, the media – depending on the situation. “Written materials must consider both the audience and the context in order to effectively communicate the actual risk”, Coghlan said. "It is never too late to develop a risk communication strategy -- it’s just harder and more expensive the longer you wait."
“As soon as employees express a concern about a potential health affect or exposure you should respond to it,” Coghlan said. “The earlier you identify a risk concern, the cheaper and easier it is to deal with. The longer you wait, the harder it is to address and the more expensive it becomes. The costs increase exponentially. If you wait 10 days to address a concern rather than five days, the cost has not doubled, it has probably quadrupled.”
Kevin Coghlan, M.S., C.I.H., is the Director of EH&S Compliance and Strategic Support at EH&E.