The ZRA Factor

ZRA or Zero Risk Assessment is the practice of assuming risk without attempting to do much actual assessment of risks.  It can be embodied by the old saying: “Better safe then sorry.

Sounds reasonable, right?  I would agree that it’s a reasonable approach when the stakes are high, and the ability to assess the risks are lacking.  But most risks can be assessed, at least to the level where a reasonable level of safety can be achieved.

A few years ago, a mayor of a town on one of the Great Lakes sought to prevent the Coast Guard from having live-fire exercises on the water, as they had been doing for decades.  The argument was that the bullets would contaminate the lake with lead. From a scientific aspect, such a statement is complete nonsense. The amount of lead it would add to the lake water is unmeasurable above natural levels by any method, and certainly far below any margins of safety.  Not that lead in a lake is good, but the actual risk level to residents would never outweigh the value to the Coast Guard of conducting the exercises.

Industries are slowly coming around from Statute-based (ZRA) safety programs to more risk-based safety programs.  The evidence strongly shows that actually doing hazard assessments produces far safer results than simply piling on thousands of rules in hopes of somehow covering all possible hazards.

Perhaps the best classic example of the wrongheaded ZRA approach was the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.  In the Soviet Union at that time, there were no shortage of rules; in fact, work, and life itself would have been virtually impossible if all the myriad of existing rules were obeyed, much less being able to know them all.  The result was that people were used to ignoring rules, because it was the only way to get anything done.

Similarly today, some companies have large, complicated lists of rules, and others have much fewer rules, but practice risk assessments before attempting any potentially hazardous task.  It should come as no surprise that companies which practice risk assessment have much lower accident rates.

On a person level, we can save ourselves a good deal of anxiety by attempting to assess the risks in our own lives.  Those who fear flying can take some comfort in the fact that a flight in a commercial airliner is about 200 times safer (statistically) than the trip to the airport by car.

At the end of the 19th century, mortality rates were very high, and one of the reasons was a lack of refrigerated food.  When electric refrigerators were introduced, there was widespread fear and rejection of the new technology.  People chose instead to use blocks of ice from the lakes and rivers, which were indeed the sewers of the time.  Much more disease was caused this way than from the new-fangled electric refrigerators, which were rumored to cause men to go sterile and food to go bad elsewhere in the house.

We live in interesting times; cellphone radiation, GMO foods, fluoridated drinking water, organic foods… Who is really qualified to assess the risks?  A mother who would to a doctor with a sniffling child, to have him prescribe loads of chemicals, might also pay 25% more for organic beef which has been raised without any antibiotics at all. Does this not seem a contradiction?  We don’t have to be scientists to apply a bit of skepticism to the stories which feed our fears.