Place trust in science, unopinionated leaders


As a private occupational safety, health and environmental consultant, who’s worked 32 years in both enforcement and consultation sectors within the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, I have had to deal with what we often refer to in the field as “Selling Safety.”

The selling is simply getting someone to “accept the risk.” It is probably the most difficult job we in the field of safety and health guidance have. Even if you show, explain the possibility with the probability of someone getting injured or ill associated with an identified risk applicable to a task, use of a tool, piece of equipment or a daily personal procedure, many individuals simply ignore the information or the warning.

Stopping smoking is probably one of the best examples I can give. We’ve all heard similar comments: “My grandfather smoked two, three cigars a day and lived into his 90s.”

This is where we are in today’s COVID-19 crisis. Many have accepted the risk and are staying home or when venturing out are donning the required or suggested face covering; others are not; and some actually protest the suggestion or mandate. The reason? There are two: The Base Rate and Optimism Bias.

The “Base Rate” is simply the probability of something happening, like getting struck by lightning, which is 1 in 700,000 in a year. Nobody takes that too seriously– ask a fisherman or a golfer. The second, the “Optimism Bias,” is the tendency we all have, more so when we are young, in which we underestimate the risk. Optimism bias is fueled by fear, inability to control the risk and by conflicting data provided, aka contradicting news reports.

In my opinion as a consultant, I believe the optimism bias is the more powerful reason for denial than the base rate. When someone based on fear, the unknown, the “nothing I can do” aspect of an identified risk, they choose to ignore or discredit said risk. That is where we are at with today’s COVID-19 crisis.

To overcome such bias, we need receptive, upfront, unopinionated leadership. We need to rely on the experts and professionals in the field of the risk. I’m not seeing such at this time.

Stay safe, stay healthy.




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