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Communicating Worst-Case Scenarios: Neighbors' Views of Industrial Accident Management

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The prospect of industrial accidents motivated the U.S. Congress to require in the Clean Air Act of 1990 that manufacturing facilities develop Risk Management Plans (RMP) to submit to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) by July 1999. Industry worried that the requirement to communicate to the public a “worst-case scenario” would arouse unnecessary and counterproductive fears among industry neighbors. We report here the results of focus groups and surveys with such neighbors, focusing particularly upon their reactions to messages about a hypothetical worst-case scenario and management of these risks by industry, government, and other parties. Our findings confirmed our hypotheses that citizens would be skeptical of the competence and trustworthiness of these managers and that this stance would color their views of industrial-facility accident risks. People with job ties to industry or who saw industrial benefits to the community as exceeding its risks had more positive views of industrial risks, but still expressed great concern about the risk and doubt about accident management. Notwithstanding these reactions, overall respondents welcomed this and other related information, which they wanted their local industries to supply. Respondents were not more reassured by additional text describing management of accidents by government and industry. However, respondents did react very positively to the concept of community oversight to review plant safety. Claims about the firm's moral obligation or financial self-interest in preventing accidents were also received positively. Further research on innovative communication and management of accident risks is warranted by these results, even before recent terrorist attacks made this topic more salient.

Keywords: Industrial accidents; risk communication; risk management plans; risk perception

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: August 1, 2003

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