Risk Management

How to Measure Risk Perception

Why surveying your employees should be a critical part of your risk-management strategy.
Rick JonesJanuary 4, 2012

Scientists can measure the speed of light, how much dark matter exists in the universe, and the time it takes to break an electron from an atom. But can anyone measure what people are thinking? Understanding perception may be like trying to “catch the wind,” as discussed in November’s article, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be measured. It can be measured, but in a nontraditional way.

A quantitative assessment of your employees’ or customers’ risk perceptions — or how they view uncertainty around them — can help you customize your health and safety programs and improve the precision of your risk-management planning. The exercise may reveal that your company’s own priorities when it comes to risk need to be reordered.

To begin, realize that risk perceptions are personal opinions, not direct measurables like event frequencies and severities, which are common metrics when measuring risk. No machine or magic wand exists for learning what people are thinking about specific issues, activities, or behaviors. There is only one way to collect this data: you have to ask questions. Although sometimes you can ascertain risk perceptions by observing certain behaviors, the detailed knowledge provided by tools such as questionnaires or surveys is the most effective means of evaluating risk perception.

But this approach has a potential pitfall. One of the fundamental laws of measurement says that measurement affects the process. And think about it: how might your employees react to a questionnaire regarding their opinions (perceptions) about their specific activities? No matter how you positioned the survey, your employees most likely would temper their responses to reflect their inhibitions, concerns, and perceptions of your motives. It’s natural — we all do this.

To get around this measurement effect, such questionnaires can be designed so that they don’t ask specific questions about risk perceptions outright but instead ask respondents to rank a list of activities from highest to lowest risk. It’s easier to rank activity A compared with activity B rather than to give direct answers about the risks of A or B separately. This means that all risk perceptions will be measured relative to one another, rather than empirically.

To design such a survey, you first need to decide what perceptions you want to measure, of course. And then you will need to embed them in a list and include the specific activities tied to each one. Be aware that your participants do not need to be overly familiar with all the activities, concepts, or phenomena you put in the survey. After all, you are quantifying perception, and everyone has perceptions about things that are unknown. For example, people often have views concerning things like nuclear power, environmental pollution, or flying in small airplanes, even though they may never have experienced their effects. This is where your creativity is important. Choose hazards or activities where the ranking can be tied to activities in the workplace or marketplace. The respondents can more easily rank each activity in order of its perception.

Also be sure to include items you wish to assess for your perceived business risk and some commonplace items that would best indicate the respondents’ overall assessment of risk. For example, you might include things like wearing seat belts in a car, riding in a commercial airliner, riding a bicycle, using your bathtub, and getting food poisoning. Not only will this sort of survey allow you to see relative perceptions of risk in an overall group, you can compare perceptions between different groups.

This is another reason for including both commonplace and business-specific risks: it will allow you to see overall risk-perception tendencies. For example, a group of young people may rank the risk of taking a bath much lower in a list than a group of senior citizens would. Young people may view bathtubs as surrogate spas rather than slip-and-fall hazards. Such sorting and collating by groups will enable you to develop targeted risk-abatement activities by demographic groups. Your challenge is to identify the groups that you want to contrast and then compile a list of activities and hazards that you believe will be effective in measuring those groups’ risk-perception differences.

Any survey’s list should include a minimum of 10 items and a maximum of 30, in order to make the results meaningful yet manageable. Too few items encourage little thought in the ranking, and too many discourages people from taking the time to complete the ranking process. It also helps to choose items that have statistics compiled by the National Safety Council or other reputable sources so that you have more-concrete data to back up your conclusions about the different groups.

Overall, I prefer 100% completion by a randomly selected group, rather than voluntary completion from a larger distribution, to avoid a possible bias. For example, people who willingly take the time to complete the survey may be more risk-aware and therefore may not represent the population. And keep in mind that there are also various statistical ways to look at the results, but the simplest is to compute the average or median ranking for each hazard by group.

This process of measuring risk-perception differences within and between groups is simple in concept but challenging in the sense that you provide the measurement design in the list of activities or hazards, and you design the groups or categories among the respondents. Risk-perception measurements are not analytical values, so the ruler for measurement must reflect the subjective nature of our beliefs and opinions. The ranking results provide insights from which you can infer valuable risk-related information to help your company reduce risk.

Rick Jones has spent the past 30 years applying risk analysis and management techniques to industrial and business problems. He has presented at several conferences and is the author of numerous articles and technical research papers. His third book, 20% Chance of Rain: Exploring the Concept of Risk, was recently published.


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