Fear—Why Radiation Safety Professionals Need to Address Public Fear with Understanding
|Health physics poster exhorting respect for, rather than fear of, radiation.
This is one of a series of posters produced at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1947 to remind personnel of radiation safety practices and to let them know what the term “health physics” (i.e., radiation protection) meant. In 1947, the term health physics was only four years old and, even then, people were confused about what it meant.
Affiche sur la radioprotection appelant à adopter une attitude de respect, plutôt que de crainte, face à la radioprotection.
Voici l’une des affiches créées par l’Oak Ridge National Laboratory en 1947, qui rappelle à son personnel les bonnes pratiques en matière de radioprotection et qui vise à lui faire connaître la signification du terme radioprotection. À l’époque, les gens étaient déjà confus quant au sens de ce nouveau mot puisqu’il n’avait été créé que quatre ans auparavant.
On March 12, 2020, an epidemic received a new name: pandemic.
A couple of days later, we were confined, forced to adapt many of the small actions we once took for granted. Some of us started to work from home, which could be a very comfortable situation, if
- you have a decent space to work, and
- you don’t have small children (or other distractions).
Some, less fortunate, lost their jobs and were forced to rely on a new social net, perhaps for the first time in their professional lives. Others worked more than ever before.
Finally, the wiser members of our civilization, those who had made their contributions way before we did, were literally confined at home for their own good. We realized then that we are not all equal. We also realized that the essence, as in “essential work,” is not linked to social status. From the front lines, we started to receive daily death tolls, new knowledge, new challenges, directives, procedures, restrictions.
And then it came, infiltrating, crawling, sneaking its way inside many of us: fear.
It is anything but rational. And, of course, we are not equal to fear, either. Some feared that civilization would come to an end with the last piece of toilet paper—we had to admit that 100 square centimetres is not just a parameter useful in regulatory contamination controls!
But, more seriously, others also worried about their loved ones (parents, children, friends) and themselves. Health and economics are both creepy ingredients in the recipe for stress.
We are radiation safety professionals; some of us are even experts. At some point in your lives, how many of you have said something like this: “Hey, you have no reason to fear (A) because of (B) . . . ” Please substitute (A) with words like nuclear energy, radiation, or X-rays and (B) with some general safety performance, dose limits or threshold, benefit to detriment ratios, excess cancer statistics, etc. I know I have, years ago as a Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) inspector or as a young radiation safety officer.
Now that you have grown wiser, and you have experienced the fear caused by this pandemic (or other events in your life), would you consider taking another approach in your radiation safety speech? Do you really think we have no reason to fear in life?
When we dig into anthropology, sociology, or psychology, we discover that fear is what makes us keep going, survive. And because fear is a strong emotional reaction, using it as a deterrent in any program is not a sustainable approach.
We have confirmed during this pandemic that sound expertise and clear communication of facts are a good start to mitigate fear. But, adding my two cents about the process of fear (damage) control, I want to paraphrase Nietzsche: There are no facts, only interpretations.
Mitigation will be effective only if you consider the communication medium. So, dear Dr. Perfect—yes, you . . . the world expert in radiation biology—please note that your expertise is no good on social media (our new, collective Encyclopedia Britannica). You must realize that a simple misinterpretation of a fact by Joe or Jane Public replaces Bergonié and Tribondeau’s law of cell radiosensitivity in less time than it takes to type 240 characters.
Of course, this is the moment when you mention that you believe in science, or that you have represented science for the past 40 years . . . nice try, but science is no god; you are not a priest. Science can’t explain everything and the scientific process is full of trials and errors, repetitions, perceived contradictions . . . all normal facts for a scientific mind. “Prove me wrong,” you say. But not all of the people around you are like that.
You don’t need to believe in science, you need to use science—use it to understand cognitive bias, the Dunning-Kruger effect that you first have to overcome in any medium. “People with limited knowledge or competence in a given intellectual or social domain greatly overestimate their own knowledge or competence in that domain relative to objective criteria or to the performance of their peers or of people in general.”
So with that in mind, let’s start with the human factor, again. In this Zoom era, face-to-face meetings help a lot!
In my career, I once had to wake up at 3:00 am to jump in my car and hurry to convince 30 misinformed unionized workers at an aluminum plant to start their 6:00 am shift, to convince them that the potassium-40 (K-40) they had detected would not expose them to a major dose and therefore was not dangerous. I will always remember their faces and the laugh we all shared when, giving them my best smile, I candidly admitted, “Yes, you are absolutely correct. I am paid by your employer to tell you it is not dangerous.” The fact is, humans are full of K-40, especially the guacamole lovers!
Another example is a recent training I did for a major airline on their new in-flight worker dosimetry system or, more accurately, the meaning of certain results. Some of the pilots and flight attendants were worried by the fact that they receive more dose on certain flight pathways than the vast majority of nuclear energy workers!
You see, they had read a recent CNSC regulatory oversight report and saw figures that showed that the majority of nuclear energy workers (of all categories) received less than 0.5 mSv (for about 2,000 hours of work). In another reference, they saw a graph that showed that it takes only 65 hours to reach 0.5 mSv at an altitude of 13,000 m during a polar flight between Paris and Tokyo. (I had a good 2020 CRPA conference presentation right there! So, let’s keep the conclusion for another time . . .)
When you read, hear, or sense fear in the media regarding a domain you understand well, you may be tempted to “bring common sense” to the matter. Great; please do! That’s almost a responsibility! But you—the professional, the expert—need to know better. You need to understand.
“I understand your fear. I can relate.”
Let’s open the communication channels without judgment or condescension. Let’s treat our fellow citizens with respect (no insults or name calling, like stupid, idiot, “covidiot,” etc.) and goodwill.
Imagine this: a human being tells another human, on a simple human level, “I am with you; we’re in the same boat. I hear you, but please hear me too.”
We need that kind of “contact” nowadays, don’t you think?
Stay safe, everyone.
 S. Andresz and G. Desmaris (2017). « Rayonnement cosmique dans l’aviation − Y a t-il un siège pour la radioprotection ? » Radioprotection, 52(3), 159–165.