Let’s learn risk management | Sunday Observer

Let’s learn risk management

14 August, 2022

Rex was employed in a Government department. He received a modest salary, some prestige, and he was entitled to a pension. He was married and he had two children. Although he did not tell anybody, he was unhappy with his job.

He wanted to move with the world instead of doing some routine work. He applied for many vacancies in the private sector, attended numerous interviews, but he was not selected for any job. Then he started writing short stories and feature articles to newspapers and magazines. When they were published he got an immense satisfaction. He kept on contributing to newspapers for a long time. One day he received a message from a newspaper editor to attend an interview.

“Do you like to work as a journalist?” the editor asked him point blank. He readily accepted the offer and returned home to break the happy news. His parents and wife objected because he would lose his pension rights if he left his job. Even his close friends advised him not to take unnecessary risks. Despite such objections and advice, he resigned from his job and joined the newspaper as a journalist.

Not only Rex but many other people also want to take risks. Most people want security in their jobs. They are prepared to do any menial work if they are assured of a pension. However, such people usually do not succeed in life. Only risk takers enjoy life and make the world an exciting place.


Risk taking is not confined to jobs. Some people avoid eating vegetables and fruits claiming that they may have been treated with man-made pesticides. However, a prominent biologist recently claimed that our food contains naturally occurring chemicals. In his research, he found that we eat about 10,000 times more natural pesticides than the man-made variety. He says there is no cause for concern with either type. If we are going to avoid eating vegetables and fruits treated with chemicals, there won’t be anything for us to eat.

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, a young science graduate got an appointment to a Government hospital away from home. He had to spend many days to find a boarding house because landlords were not willing to give accommodation to hospital employees. The reason was that they would pick up germs from hospital and bring them home. If you think a bit more rationally, you are more likely to get germs from the money in your pocket. Both coins and currency notes carry infectious organisms.

Risk analysis is a new subject that has come to the fore in the past 15 years. The task of assigning numbers to probabilities has been made easy with modern computers and sensitive measurement techniques. Apart from scientists, almost all of us make hundreds of risk assessments every day. There are risks in driving, using mobile phones, taking vitamin supplements and buying stocks or bonds.

In order to analyse the risks, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the United States has set up a computerised data file on more than one million highway deaths. Among its findings, you are about 17 times more likely to die in a car crash if you are driving a small car. On the other hand, wearing a seat belt reduces the chance of dying in a crash.

Scientists have said that there is a link between smoking and higher mortality. It has been proved statistically that a cigarette cuts seven minutes from your lifespan. However, smokers do not take such warnings seriously.

Unemployment is a major social problem even in developed countries. According to analysts, unemployment is a major risk factor. They say that being unemployed rates as the equivalent of smoking ten packs of cigarettes a day. This is because they are more likely to commit suicide or suffer from cirrhosis from consuming alcohol.

On the other hand, joblessness is a stress-related disease. If you think deeply, being poor is dangerous. Having spent a few days in the slums I realised that poor people would commit any offence to earn some money. Another danger of poverty is that it reduces your life expectancy by about nine years.


Before the 1970s, scientists considered whether a chemical was carcinogenic (cancer causing) or mutagenic (gene mutating). Back then they decided only a handful of chemicals were carcinogenic. However, two-thirds of chemicals are suspected of being carcinogenic. Some of the chemicals caused or promoted tumours. Today, quantitative chemical analysis is highly advanced and scientists are capable of identifying carcinogenic or mutagenic chemicals.

If you take everything into account, all life is a risk. When you take a deep breath, you will possibly inhale molecules of earth’s deadliest toxins. In a major psychological study involving three groups of people, certain conclusions were made. People and experts agreed that there is a major risk in using motor vehicles. However, there was no unanimity as far as nuclear power related risks and X-rays.

We can control certain risk factors such as smoking. If you decide to give up smoking, the risk disappears. However, there are risk factors over which we have no control. For instance, there is hardly anything we can do about pesticides on food or radiation from a nuclear power plant. With some effort, we may be able to avert heart attacks and strokes. However, the public ranks accidents and diseases on an equal footing.

We pay scant attention to smoking-related deaths because they occur in different parts of a country. When 500 passengers die in a plane crash, it makes headlines. As an editor put it succinctly, spectacular deaths make the front page news; ordinary deaths wind up on the obituary page.

Although they say, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” some of us still hesitate before eating it. We believe that apples have been chemically treated. In 1989, CBS News alleged that the chemical Altar put children at great risk for cancer. The chemical was used by a small percentage of US apple growers. It was applied to keep the apples from falling off the trees too early.

According to CBS News, Altar was the “most potent cancer-causing agent in our food supply.” The news created panic among the people. Some people refused to drink apple juice and school authorities removed apples from their cafeterias. The apple industry was devastated and apple growers went out of business. Altar was taken off the market. After some time, however, an independent research found that the risk was minuscule.

Bruce Ames, a molecular biologist at the University of California at Berkeley, claims that the human role in putting carcinogens into the food supply is minimal compared with what nature does. He says all plants have evolved biochemical defences against their enemies. Some of them are fungi, insects and herbivores. They are found in the food chain. For instance, lettuce, celery and beets contain caffeic acid; peanut, corn and milk can contain mould toxins; eggs contain benzene.


Today, people are worried about cancer because it is an incurable disease. Many studies have been done to ascertain the causes of cancer in the United States. Researchers said roughly one-thirds of cancer deaths were caused by smoking. Another third may well have been from various dietary factors. The rest was caused by lifestyle choices. Environmental carcinogens probably accounted for only a very small percentage of all cancers.

Reducing risk in one area may increase them in another. For instance, the use of asbestos was banned in Sri Lanka without introducing an alternative. Despite the ban, people continued to use asbestos for their roofs.

In 1993, New York City schools in the United States were ordered to remove the asbestos from their buildings. It was a costly operation. Critics said allowing children spend their time on the streets of New York was far riskier to their health than asbestos.

The good news is that life expectancies are growing rapidly due to better medications, diets and risk management. Nobody can avoid certain risks in life. However, we have to take some precautions. If you follow the traffic rules, you will avoid certain accidents. When you grow old, you have to check your blood pressure and cholesterol. However, there is no necessity to entertain imaginary fears. One day in the distant future, the world itself will go up in flames or submerged in water. Right now enjoy your life which is precious and take whatever precautions to minimise risks.

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