Safety - The Big Picture

Posted by Dr. P. Andrew Karam on 9/8/2015

One of my favorite movies is Ferris Buehler’s Day Off, and one of my favorite scenes is at the Chicago Art Institute. Beginning with a close-up of a bunch of dots of paint, the camera zooms out to show, first, a low-resolution face and, eventually, a painting ("Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte", by Georges Seurat, for those of you who always wondered – it still amazes me how quickly you can find this sort of stuff out through Google). This is not a bad visual analogy for many things, but I’d like to think about it in terms of risk reduction. In particular, are we focused on any particular aspect of safety at the expense of losing sight of the totality of risks we face in the workplace? In other words – are we concentrating on a dot, thinking that we’re seeing the whole painting?




As one example, consider my own specialty of radiation safety, perhaps as practiced on a nuclear submarine (which is where I first worked in this field). Radiation safety was my primary responsibility, but there were so many other potential risks that it was only a part of what I did. We had high-pressure steam, the ever-present risk of fires, high-voltage electricity, rotating machinery, explosives, heavy equipment, the sea outside the hull – not to mention the Soviet navy (this was during the Cold War) trying to find us when we were in their waters. Radiation safety was important – but there were any number of times that it was less important than other risks that were present. What was important was not necessarily minimizing our risks from radiation, but minimizing our combined risks. If we ran out of oxygen – or sank, for that matter – the amount of radiation dose was not really very important. We had to do our best to keep track of all the risks we faced and to minimize the total risk – not just to focus on a single risk (or a pair of risks) to the exclusion of others that might be more important

Whether you’re a radiation specialist like me, an industrial hygienist, a safety professional or a practitioner of some other safety discipline you will almost certainly have an area that you know best or in which you are more comfortable than others. But if safety is a part of your job description then you, like me, have to keep in mind that there are other risks than just the ones you understand best. Regardless of specialty, we all should try to keep our eyes on the big picture – to do our best to keep the cumulative risks from all sources to ourselves and our colleagues as low as possible; not just those risks that we best understand. By doing this we’ll be concentrating on the big picture – not just focusing in on a single dot that might not be quite as important as we’d like to think.

About the Author: Andrew Karam is a board-certified health physicist with 34 years of experience in his field. He has earned a BA and MS in Geological Sciences and a PhD in Environmental Science, all from the Ohio State University. He has presented over 100 invited lectures and scientific talks at meetings in the US, Europe, South America, and Asia. Dr. Karam currently works on issues related to radiological and nuclear counter-terrorism; in the past he has been in charge of radiation safety for a major research university and hospital, as a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and as a private consultant. He has also undertaken a number of projects internationally, working in Kuwait, Dubai, Paraguay, Uruguay, Cambodia, Cyprus, and Lithuania – his most recent overseas project involved traveling to Japan in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami and reactor meltdowns in Fukushima. He is the author of over two dozen scientific and technical papers, over 200 encyclopedia articles on various aspects of science, and several hundred editorials, essays, and articles for a variety of publications for both scientists and the general public. He has also written 16 books, including his memoir of life on a fast-attack submarine, Rig Ship for Ultra Quiet. Dr. Karam is married with five children and he currently lives in Brooklyn.

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