Fear that a site contaminated by hazardous waste may be putting
one's family at risk can create a high degree of concern to a community
and affects the community's response. Assistance providers can expect
angry reactions from citizens because of the fear of unknown risks
and feelings of betrayal. Understanding both the science and the
uncertainty about risk assessments can create greater trust relations
between assistance providers and citizens.
Communicating about the risks of a contaminated site to citizens
can provide as much uncertainty as assessing the risk itself. There
are some things that are certain: a contaminated site will be of
high-concern, sensitive and controversial to the community. Good
communication is essential to being effective in working with the
public in decision-making about the contaminated site. To manage
the risk, stakeholders must be involved. For stakeholders to be
engaged, communication must occur. Assume the citizens will be angry
(or outraged). That outrage must be addressed before effective planning
occurs. Even though communication is two-way, to engage stakeholders
the service provider must listen first.
Listening will help build trust with the public you are serving.
First understand the community and its specific issues and concerns.
Each community has different goals, attitudes, history and leadership.
The goal of risk communication is to earn trust and gain credibility.
The technical expert may be more comfortable focusing on the hazard
and unintentionally ignore the outrage of the citizens. The public
is focused on the outrage and may misperceive the hazard. To truly
begin communicating, the outrage must be addressed first. The three
formulas of risk communication are:
P = R
Perception = Reality
G = T + K
Goal = Trust + Knowledge
C = C2
Communication = Credibility x Competence
Perception and Reality: Risk perception is reality.
Paul Slovic has developed theories of risk perception and measurement.
It is important to realize that the science of predicting harm is
uncertain. Risk perception of the individual is the reality to that
individual. Telling someone that they do not have to worry will
not relieve this reality. Most hazards are unpredictable and uncontrolled.
Therefore the degree of control and the degree of knowledge about
a risk affect the perception of the risk. Education can make a difference
in risk perception; however, the education must come from a trusted
Trust. To communicate effectively in risk communication, the assistance
provider must gain the trust of the citizens. Communication practices
that can help build trust and credibility include: empathy and caring;
competence and expertise; honesty and openness; and dedication and
commitment. Peter Sandman has written extensively about building
trust in risk communication.
In a situation where the citizens have a high level
of concern about a site and the provider has low credibility, the
citizens will have little trust. They may already believe that someone
is hiding something. To build trust, accept the citizens as legitimate
partners and listen to their concerns. Evaluate what has gone well
and what has gone poorly. Work with credible community members.
Do not promise what you cannot do. Be available and helpful. Be
clear and be honest about what you do not know.
Knowledge: Some research has found that
risk perception is lessened when knowledge is greater. However,
that is not always true. In some cases the drama of an event may
make the risk seem higher than the probability would suggest (e.g.,
the risk of a nuclear power plant accident). To add to the complexity
of lay knowledge about risk, consider the difference in perception
of the risk of a natural hazard as compared with a technical hazard,
the differences in direct and indirect knowledge of hazards, and
the differences in the presence or absence sensory signals (such
as odors) of a hazard. In summary, knowledge levels will vary dramatically
given the variables. In a contaminated site, the drama can be high,
complex, technically caused, known through direct experience and
visible to the senses. Such a combination should be considered in
Credibility and Competence: A certain
amount of credibility comes just by being in a certain role or profession.
For instance, local citizens, non-managers, health professionals
and educators have greater credibility than industry officials,
government officials, lawyers or consultants. One of the reasons
for low credibility among the latter group is a tendency to use
technology and the tendency for the officials to hold tightly to
There are ways that credibility can be improved. Similar
to building trust, credibility is gained through empathy, competence,
honesty and commitment. To override low credibility work closely
with credible, local residents or trusted professionals. Contextual
expertise about the particular site will go a long way to build
credibility. And finally, be very aware of body language (arms folded,
wandering attention). Convey openness and avoid negative words (such
as don't, can't, never, nothing, etc.).
Building competence on the team means bringing the
needed expertise to the project, studying the issues and being prepared
for every meeting. Inform the group of your experience and background
and be honest about what you do NOT know. It is important to be
accessible to the citizens and to follow-up with the answers you
do not know at the time, (e.g., "I don't know the answer to that
but I will find out for you.").
Dedication and Commitment: Finally,
showing the community that you will put the time needed on the project
will demonstrate the commitment needed to foster good risk communication.
Go to all lengths to get the right people involved in the project.
Be careful to avoid the need to apologize by because you did not
attend to an issue as expected. Do not make comparisons that make
the citizens of this community feel you have more important projects
than theirs. Being clear about what can be expected from your team
and risk communication can improve dramatically.
Overall, risk assessments can be used to establish
clean-up goals and help to prioritize site remediation efforts.
Click here for Steps of Assessment.
This page describes detailed descriptions of the steps in risk assessment,
with emphasis on human health risk assessment.
Click here for Risk Assessment Standards
This page provides a discussion on standards for risk assessment
based on the American Society for Testing and Materials.
Click here for Ecological Risk Assessment
This page focuses on the unique aspects of ecological risk assessment.
Click here for Risk Management This page
provides information about plans for managing and/or preventing