Risk Tolerance, Risk Awareness, and Water & Wastewater Treatment Plant Safety

Everyone has a different idea of what an acceptable risk is. The reason some people consider climbing remote mountains fun while others call it crazy boils down to two factors: individual risk tolerance and awareness. The consequences of differences in these factors can be significant, especially in professions where people face risk every day. For example, in water and wastewater treatment plants. As operators of many of these facilities, we know how important it is to understand and manage these factors.

Safety depends on risk awareness and tolerance

Generally, if people are unaware of the true danger of an activity, they consider it less risky than it really is. Often, increasing awareness of the danger leads to a change in behavior. You can see this in the success of anti-smoking ad campaigns that lowered youth smoking rates by about 30% between 1999 and 2002.

In a treatment plant, this principle can be easily applied using simple inspections by plant staff where hazards can be identified and pointed out. Another valuable tool is the job safety analysis or JSA. A JSA is about breaking down a task into a series of steps and examining each step for potential hazards. The outcome is procedure for doing the task the safest way possible.

Risk tolerance is simply the amount of risk an individual considers acceptable. Because risk is the combination of the severity and likelihood of negative consequences, a person might decide that the consequences are so unlikely that the risk is acceptable. It’s important to note that risk tolerance depends on perceived risk rather than actual risk, and people routinely over- or under-estimate risk. Risk tolerance is also affected by a range of personal factors like past experience, skill level, and physical ability. Another factor impacting risk tolerance is the context or situation. And finally, how an employer approaches safety impacts decision-making. An effective safety program creates a work environment where safety is highly valued, which decreases risk tolerance.

7 strategies to control risk

 There’s no one simple way to reduce at-risk behavior, but there are things that treatment plant owners and staff can do.

  1. Promote hazard awareness. Make sure all operators are familiar with hazard recognition techniques, communicate known hazards clearly, and use JSAs to outline the right way to do dangerous tasks.
  2.  Use training to increase staff skill level. Many personal factors involved in risk tolerance are hard to influence, but increasing staff skill level so they are better able to perform a task safely is one way to exert some control.
  3. Acknowledge and accommodate physical limitations. If someone is uncomfortable with a task due to a health condition or other physical limitation, it needs to be acceptable, or rather, expected that they will not be forced to perform it. Providing mechanical aids, fostering an environment where everyone understands it is better to ask for help, or building certain responsibilities into a vendor’s scope of work are ways to shift tasks to others who are more able to do them safely.
  4. Make safety an expectation. If managers tolerate shortcuts and unsafe practices, dangerous situations are more likely to arise. Plant owners and managers must set the expectation that safe behavior is required and that there will never be negative consequences for taking safety into consideration.
  5. Empower employees with a team approach. Leadership’s role in a safety program is crucial, but everyone needs to have a personal investment in safety for it to truly take hold. Engage staff in program management, create opportunities for them to contribute ideas, and take those contributions seriously.
  6. Make safety personal and use positive reinforcement. When discussing safety, use real-life and personal examples rather than abstract scenarios. And make sure to “catch” folks doing things safely and provide positive feedback or rewards.
  7. Promote accountability. Give responsibility for safety policy enforcement to staff of all levels, and hold people accountable for not following them. Having no enforcement is the same as having no policy.

Everyone’s risk awareness and tolerance is different due to their technical training, past experience, and other factors. Operators face numerous hazards in water and wastewater treatment plants every day. Maintaining plant safety means recognizing those risks, assessing them accurately, and taking the right precautions.


Shannon Eyler Vice President Health & Safety

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