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No. 24 – Images Control Our Reactions

April 20, 2011

I usually begin a class on radiation safety by holding up a large sign with the radiation symbol. I then ask the students to share what images or ideas come to mind when they see this symbol. Those who currently work at a radiation facility are usually reminded of the “Caution Radioactive Material” signs posted on rooms where radioactive materials are stored or used. Others are reminded of earlier days when the radiation symbol was related to fallout shelters. For those without previous radiation training, the common image is a mushroom cloud, which automatically means cancer and death.

The purpose for inviting the class to identify such images is to help the students become aware that they already have ideas about radiation before the class begins. Since students often have difficulty getting in touch with these ideas, especially if they are very familiar with uses of radiation, I then propose another scenario.

I ask them to imagine that they are driving on a major interstate highway and they are coming up behind a truck on which there is the radiation symbol. I then suggest that the truck seems to be doing something strange and ask what would they do? Most classes immediately say they would either speed up and go by quickly, or they would slow down, stop, or take the nearest exit. My next question is, “Why would you do that’?”

The responses include images of the truck turning over, containers of radioactive material falling on the road and radioactive materials spilling out. I then ask, “What is so bad about that?” I usually ask this question several times to gently lead students to what represents the bottom line for them. The sequence usually includes getting contaminated, cancer, horrible disfigurement, and ultimately death. I then point out that each person’s decision to take evasive action was based entirely on a series of images of their own making. I do not say that anything actually happens to the truck. Furthermore the images that lead to such decisions require only a second or less.

Anyone who reacts adversely to a radiation message is not reacting to the message, but to the images created for them by the word “radiation.” Our messages about radiation safety will be filtered through those images and people may or may not hear what we are trying to say. My goal in teaching is to help people identify their images and to affirm that those images are OK.

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3 Comments
  1. Jean Staton permalink

    This is very similar to the way I start my radiation safety class but without the signage. I agree with you that people have preconceived ideas about radiation and now we must share more informative messaes to them.

    • Thanks for the feedback. I use the radiation sign to invite students to think about what radiation means for them. Whatever they think or beleive is what we have to consider, not technical reality as we may understand radiation. People make decisions for safety based on what they can imagine as unacceptable consequences. Therfore, my goal is to invite students or workers to share what they imagine and then to provide them with new information from which they may change what they imagine.

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  1. No. 26 – Where Do Anxieties Come From? « Radiation Safety Forum

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