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Can you reduce workplace risk to a mathematical equation?

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Sam Waltz
Publisher Emeritus

By Sam Waltz

So, what’s the role of Risk in the workplace?

What’s your Risk Quotient (RQ)?

And what’s the Hazard (H) where you work?

RQ and H each enjoy the privilege of being both technical, specific concepts, defined by particular industries, as well as general concepts. Here, I use them in a general, not specific, context.

As an employee, or self-employed, or entrepreneur, or even a volunteer, can you rid risk as an element of where you go to work?


That seemed the crux of an issue in July between a teacher and a Brandywine School Board member in Delaware.

She wrote her employer, concerned about risk to her health during the pandemic, if she goes back to work as a teacher, selling her services and her time to her customers: the taxpayers, their community and its children.

If you’re not comfortable with the risk in that, the school board member told her, “maybe it’s time to get another career.” (Some skeptics wondered if she was simply after “free money,” to be paid by taxpayers and not have to go to work.)

Clearly, she was telling her boss that her RQ – defined by Wikipedia as “a measure of a person’s natural level of risk inclination” – was inadequate for the H, the Hazards, of her job working with her customers, as a public employee of the taxpayers, of serving them.

Hazard, Wikipedia defines, focusing on its more technical size, is “the ratio of the potential exposure to a substance and the level at which no adverse effects are expected. If the Hazard Quotient is calculated to be less than 1, then no adverse health effects are expected as a result of exposure. If the Hazard Quotient is greater than 1, then adverse health effects are possible.”

“The Hazard Quotient cannot be translated to a probability that adverse health effects will occur, and is unlikely to be proportional to risk. It is especially important to note that a Hazard Quotient exceeding 1 does not necessarily mean that adverse effects will occur,” it concluded.

Employers mitigate hazard and risk all the time. Literally, they do it every day. And millions of people go to work and practice safe behaviors, doing their part to mitigate risk. But, even as risk is mitigated, it simply cannot be eliminated in life, or in living. It’s always there.

When women and men volunteer for careers in public safety, they volunteer to take on an above-average amount of risk. And they’re compensated for it, really today at about the same level as teachers are compensated for teaching in public schools.

When I volunteered for US Army service during the Vietnam War, I was volunteering to put my life on the line for my country, and its people, and what it says it represents. Some people, perhaps many, were afraid of that inherent risk, and some actually fled, or hid, to avoid that risk. Fear may have saved their lives.

Every day, as society learns more about itself, its work, its diseases, its people, the calculus of risk changes. And, clearly, not all risk can be mitigated.

Those same people who the teacher told her employer that she’s afraid of being around go food shopping, to visit the doctor, and to have meals out. They get their cars serviced at Campanella’s, their prescriptions filled at Walgreen’s, and maybe to church to worship. They literally are served by hundreds of people who have dealt with the risk and hazard calculus and decided they have a commitment, that fear will not prevail with them.

Look, I do have a “special sympathy” for the teacher in this, since four immediate members of my family have taught, or teach.

Fear is a natural data point on the continuum of human emotions, and I don’t blame her if she feels a bit overwhelmed by fear. It happens. Not all risk can be mitigated.

And, to me, her fear translates to a sense of self-importance. She seems to feel more important than the person who takes the risk selling her food, or medicine, or servicing her car, or delivering her packages. Yes, certainly, she’s important.

At the end of the day, I come down with her employer, with the school district, its board (which tried to dodge getting involved in that no-win controversy), and the board member, who arguably could and should have used a bit more tact, diplomacy and timing in how he responded, in order not to inflame his employees.

Every job has risk, and every person encounters risk every day in life. That’s simply the way that it is.

Employers should work regularly to do what they can to reduce risk.

But employees have an equal responsibility.

After knowing and acknowledging the risk, if they find more or different risk in the job than they find comfortable for themselves, or their families, or if the risk in the workplace evolves or changes over time, then, as the School Board volunteer counseled the teacher, she should find another occupation.

That’s what I’d counsel any employee. Perhaps a bit more tactfully than the School Board member did, but, nonetheless, the message would be the same.

Sam Waltz is publisher emeritus of the Delaware Business Times.

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1 Comment

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    David Daniels August 14, 2020

    In the “normal” working environment a teacher is exposed to a wide variety of risks from student violence, parental indifference or non-involvement, and a wide variety of diseases that they are exposed to during their time at school. These are different from the service technition at Jiffy Lube who does not have to physically interact with the customer thanks to evolving technology. Or the pharmacy where many now have drive through for perscriptions or delivery options. Churches have adapted to providing services in a virtual environment. All are ways these employees reduce their risk. The teachers are exposed to the risk in this pandemic the entire time they are in school. They have no way to escape the risk. Kids of all ages expose the teacher and other students to this virus which has proven to be difficult to contain. It is not the teacher that feels self important by not wanting to take this additional risk but the students, parents, and school board members that want to get back to “normal” operations and do not practice proper social distancing or wear the dreaded “mask”.

    I think your siding with the find another line of work point of view if you do not like the risk is putting dollars above people at a time when there is too much uncertianty about this virus. When the risk to teachers or any employee is as great as it is in this pandemic we as a society should not act so cavalierly with other peoples health. As a kid of 18 you probably didn’t know to be afraid until it was too late. The teacher in your story has more responsibilities and wisdom than you did at the time.

    Sorry Sam butI think you are wrong this time.


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