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No. 1 – What is the Greatest Challenge for Health Physicists?

October 13, 2010

The primary challenge or role of a health physicist is to assure the radiation safety of workers and the general public. To carryout this function, health physicists need a technical understanding of the fundamentals of radiation, radiation effects, radiation detection, regulations, and the principles of radiation protection. Health physicists commonly acquire this technical understanding through many years of formal study and applied experience. Most health physicists are quite successful in applying their technical skills in implementing radiation safety programs. However, as I have talked with groups of health physicists around the country, I commonly ask, “What is your greatest challenge as a health physicist, technical issues or dealing with people?” The answer always comes back that dealing with people is the greatest challenge and source of stress and frustration.

When I ask health physicists about the training, which they have had to prepare for their roles in radiation safety, most indicate extensive training in science and technology. Very few indicate any training in communication skills. Isn’t it interesting that we are so well prepared to deal with technical issues, and so poorly prepared to deal with our most difficult issues involving people? Does this observation suggest that we might benefit from a greater understanding of communication and behavioral sciences? I hope many of you will say, “Yes” to this question and will also find the information in this column helpful.

I propose to offer a brief insight into communication issues in each Newsletter that may be useful to health physicists. These insights will be presented as practical applications of communication sciences, rather than discussions of theory. For that purpose, you are invited to submit questions or issues, which you would like help with. For example, I could address how to deal with feelings, such as fear and anger; how to motivate workers for radiation safety; how to deal with the news media and the general public; how to deal with legal and ethical issues; and how to deal with management and co-workers.

Most health physicists are successful because of the many tools they can apply to solving problems. Since we are identifying people issues as our source of greatest problems, this raises a question, “What tools do we have to apply to such needs?” This column is intended to provide a variety of tools that will be practical and helpful for health physicists in meeting daily challenges involving people. Perhaps through this column you will find one or several communication tools that will work for you and will meet your specific needs. Successful communications are a function of the tools you have available for meeting the challenges. What are your greatest challenges that could benefit from additional communication insights?

  1. William Runge permalink

    Please explain genetic risks in layman terms and site the best references

    • William: Hundreds of books have been written to plain generic risks. Risk is usually about the potential, chances. or probability of future harm. We take risks when we engage in some activity for which harm may result, such as riding a motorcycle, rock climbing, or sky diving. For most of us, the greatest risk we face everyday is driving to work. My speciality is radiation risk. Everyone has a concern that radiation exposure may result in future harm. Thus, most people would prefer not to be exposed to radiation. However, we are all exposed to radiation all the time from the sun and from outer space. There is no zero for radiation. What most people do not know is that their greatest risk from radiation exposures may be from radon in their homes.

      A good place to find more information on risk is through the website of the Society for Risk Analysis at

  2. jean staton permalink

    Don’t forget about us Radiation Safety Officers. While we might not have all the education that Health Physicists do; most of us RSO’s are continuing to not just learn more but be able to instill safety in our technicians that work in the field. Our company works in Industrial Radiography and we are committed to safety; however, we can’t be in every place all the time so we try to instill the importance of safety to our technicians.

    • Jean:

      Thank you for the reminder of the importance of RSOs. I am especially sensitive to needs of RSOs because I have provided the 40 hour class to qualify RSOs to over 2,500 in the past 25 years. I also audit radiation safety programs, so I know challenges which RSOs face. I have even tried to get the Health Physics Society to encourage the interests of RSOs by forming and RSO section (which I founded). I also teach the 40 hour class for new industrial radiographers and will be at ASNT with a booth next week in Houston. Please stop by if you are there. Also, if you have any special needs as an RSO, please feel free to contact me. I would be delighted to help the best that i can. Wishing you well.

  3. jean staton permalink

    Thank you Ray for your efforts for us industrial RSO’s. I’m sorry I will be unable to attend the ASNT meeting but I have just returned from being on the panel of the NRC conference and I find myself, well I can find me, but my office is so filled with paperwork, instruments needing to be fix, calibrated, etc. Have a good turn out and please send me any literature you might find appropriate of our industry. I am always learning.

  4. Jean: I am at the ASNT meeting this week, staffing a booth for the Radiation Safety Academy. Unfortunately, I am the only one here for the booth, so I cannot get around to see other vendors very well.

    Wishing you well. Let me know if there is any way I can help with things.

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