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No. 55 – Hearing Feelings – 2

January 4, 2012

Perceptions of radiation risks are tied to feelings about the consequences of exposure to radiation. Those with greater concerns will likely have stronger feelings. These feelings may be expressed as outrage and resistance to hearing the best information which radiation safety professionals have to provide.

For example, about 10 years ago workers and their families at Paducah expressed their outrage at finding out they were exposed to plutonium. And now workers have cancer, which they are convinced could only be due to radiation exposures from plutonium that they were not told about. Will good logical scientific information answer their concerns?

Feelings Are the Issue Here!

The workers are angry at big government taking advantage of working people in the name of the war effort. They are angry about getting cancers and other ailments that should have been prevented by the government. They are angry that their lives should be threatened unknowingly, so they could not protect themselves.

In their hearts, they feel hurt that big government doesn’t care about them. If anyone cared, how could they let workers be exposed to deadly plutonium?

What Do These Workers Expect Now?

Most of these workers probably expected that the government will try to cover-up or minimize their exposures to plutonium and other radioactive materials. They expect safety professionals will try to tell them in scientific jargon that there is no cause for alarm. Meanwhile they feel they are destined to die horrible deaths from radiation, alone, abandoned, destitute, and uncared for. Will anyone hear their concerns and fears?

What can Radiation Safety Professionals Do?

The normal response of safety professionals is to gather the best available information for risk assessment by logical analysis of potential exposures and effects. This is the thinking approach favored by most safety professionals. Unfortunately, most of the workers are looking for a response in the feeling language and the best thinking response of safety professionals may not be heard. Effective communication with these workers will require speaking in the feeling language with words and actions that convey caring, compassion, empathy, comfort, solace, consolation, sympathy, sensitivity, understanding, commiseration, and feelings.

Speaking in the feeling language will seem difficult and unnatural for most safety professionals. But, skillfulness in this language can be achieved, as we will see in future Insight columns.

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