It is essential in today’s socio-economic environment that pipeline operators adopt and utilize a comprehensive approach to managing technical, environmental, economic and public safety risks associated with their business. Clearly, this type of approach to risk management would be integrated and include a variety of considerations. For example, one is the technical assessment of the level of safety or risk inherent within the system itself. Another, is the external view held of that system. While the physical system and its associated risk can be identified, evaluated and to some extent controlled, the external view of the risk, however, is an entirely different matter. Making important decisions about risk requires that both the external and internal views be in agreement. When this is not the case, an integrated management plan needs to include a risk communication component.
Simply, risk communication is the purposeful exchange of information about the existence, nature, form, severity or acceptability of risks.1 An effective risk communication strategy will be able to gauge the political and social reaction to a project. If pipeline operators try to establish what a project’s acceptable level of risk is without a purposeful exchange of information with the community the effort will likely fail. The need to look at the “big picture” is paramount. All factors which affect the outcome of the project need to be understood and, in some way, contribute meaningfully to the final product. The most overlooked aspect in risk management is the qualitative assessment of “how does the public perceive the risk?”. Risk analysts use many basic technical assumptions in their risk assessments. They allow their training and faith in the science to be sufficient indicators of the real risk. The public, on the other hand, view risk from a completely different perspective and set of values. Consequently, when attempts are made to quantitatively determine “what is an acceptable level of risk” the outcome must be viewed as incomplete, lacking the critical external input. Experience suggests that the only ones who can truly determine what is an acceptable level of risk are those who must ultimately accept that risk. This is where the power of effective risk communication can play a significant role in the risk management process. While risk analysis can help in understanding the potential of a risk, effective risk communication and public outreach are necessary in understanding the perceptions and concerns of the community.
It seems ironic that corporations dedicate tremendous resources deriving a mathematical estimate of risk that most in the community cannot comprehend much less believe what the numbers are supposed to tell them. This paper will help to explain the fundamentals of risk communication, its ethical use and methods for developing a strategy for outreach programs as part of an integrated risk management plan.