Risk has been defined in a number of ways, but is often seen as the likelihood that an individual will experience the effect of danger, the probability of an adverse event or the
magnitude of its consequences (Short Jr, 1984; Raynor and Cantor, 1987). Risk perception is the subjective assessment of the probability of a specified type of accident happening and how concerned we are with the consequences. To perceive risk includes evaluations of the probability as well as the consequences of a negative outcome (Lennart et al., 2004).
In the early days of risk perception research in the social sciences (related to environmental issues), one of the main areas of focus was the study of position/acceptance of risks from technology (e.g. Slovic’s 1991 paper on the siting of nuclear waste management facilities – ‘The Siting Credo’). But there have been many more areas of interest in risk perception research. Ulrich Beck (1992) refers to the risks from technology relating to modern life. We can relate this to anything from pesticide use to certain plastics (e.g. Bisphenol A), electro magnetic fields from cell phones, and the list goes on.
For environmental decision makers in a variety of fields, a response to concerns about risks has been the application of the precautionary principle whereby precautionary measures are implemented in order to address public concerns regarding risk. Societal values and the public’s willingness to accept a risk are key factors in determining the level of protective measures that need to be implemented. This sort of information can be gleaned from the public process such as public engagement programs and various other points of contact during a project as is done for environmental assessments. Trust in decision makers and the decision making process is also vital to addressing concerns regarding risk. This can also be achieved through dialogue and meaningful participation with the public. Involving the public in the decision making process through a public
engagement process serves to build trust in the proponents as well as the process itself.
Beck, U. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. New Delhi: Sage.
Lennart et al, 2004. Explaining Risk Perception: An Evaluation of the Psychometric Paradigm in Risk Perception research. Rotund. No. 84.
Rayner, S., and Cantor, R. (1987). How fair is safe enough? The cultural approach to
societal technology choice. Risk Anal, 7, 3-9.
Short Jr, J. F. (1984). The social fabric of risk: towards the social transformation
of risk analysis. Am. Sociol. Rev., 49(Dec.), 711-725.
Danya Al-Haydari is an Environmental Planner at Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited, where she specializes in public consultation, environmental assessment and energy policy. She has coordinated work for the Port Hope and Port Granby Projects, and conducted research on the Port Hope Area Initiative’s Property Value Protection Program. Most recently, she co-authored a paper for the Nuclear Waste Management Organization on community well-being in nuclear host communities. Danya is a member of the Canadian Nuclear Societyand Women in Nuclear Canada.