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Risk, uncertainty and decision-making

How do people involved in hazardous activities perceive and cope with uncertainty, when analyzing problems, making decisions or taking stances?

Context and objectives

Individuals concerned with the management of hazardous activities are regularly confronted with different forms of uncertainty. This is true of workers on industrial sites, people who operate large infrastructures and networks, who work in research laboratories, for regulatory authorities, for agencies that provide expertise and guidance to government authorities, people who work for insurance companies, etc. It is also true of organizations such as local authorities, non governmental bodies and associations, trade union organizations, and in general, all organizations that may be concerned by the presence of hazardous activities.

Some of these uncertainties concern the nature of the dangers associated with production, transport, or research activities, in particular when new technologies or innovations are introduced. Other types of uncertainty are caused by changes in the organizational, financial and legal context to which hazardous activities must adapt (because of evolution in legislation, or in companies’ organization and strategies). Another category of uncertainties arise given changes in the human, social, political and natural context of hazardous activities, in particular structural modifications (to urbanization, for example) and the new role played by stakeholders.

These uncertainties are being reduced in various ways. The evolution from the notion of danger to that of risk (identification of the causes of incidents and accidents; safety margins; defence in depth; probabilistic safety analyses; consequence assessments, etc.) has, in many areas, allowed a reduction of the scope of uncertainties in the management of technological risks. Many tools and processes have been developed in this aim, and different approaches are still being debated (deterministic vs. probabilistic risk assessment, etc.).

Nonetheless, recent research suggests that, for various reasons, this reduction of the scope of uncertainty is becoming an issue, and needs to be addressed in a more direct manner. At the heart of the hazardous activities listed previously, new forms of uncertainty are being introduced by the increased level of concern for human and organizational factors of safety and the need to consider the complexity of socio-technical systems in a global manner. The adequacy of risk management mechanisms (safety margins, barriers) is sometimes questioned given these new uncertainties. The socio-economic, political and environmental context in which these activities operate is becoming increasingly uncertain.

People concerned in different ways by hazardous activities (both people who run or manage dangerous activities, and those who oversee and regulate them, as well as stakeholders who may be concerned by the effects of a hypothetical loss of control) operate in this uncertain environment. The way in which uncertainties are approached, handled, managed, has become a central issue, in particular in numerous scientific debates that have overflowed to the general public, such as those concerning the precautionary principle.

Research prOgramme

In 2008, Foncsi launched a call for scientific proposals to better understand how, in practice, players varyingly affected by risky activities, perceive and process uncertainty and more especially, how they deal with it.

The aim is to determine how people react to uncertainty when assessing situations, forming opinions and making decisions, and how they go about creating the conditions necessary to take action in uncertain environments.

6 research teams (French but also European) were chosen for financing. They come from a variety of scientific fields - psychology, sociology, management, industrial engineering and nuclear engineering - and cover topics from different areas of study: risk prevention in Seveso facilities, the management of a flu-like pandemic, group decisions in a hospital environment, medication development in the pharmaceutical sector.

The projects

> Studying decision making processes in a context of uncertainty: investment decisions for pharmaceutical projects, the team  includes Saïna Hassanzadeh (PhD student), Didier Gourc and François Marmier (École des Mines d’Albi, Génie industriel), and Sophie Bougaret (Manageos)

> The decision making process in situations of uncertainty: Players, industrial spaces and the prevention of industrial risk procedures, the team includes Fanny Girin (doctorante, ENTPE), Emmanuel Martinais (ENTPE), Laure Bonnaud (INRA), Gwenola Le Naour (IEP Lyon) and Pierre Fournier (Université d'Aix-Marseille).

> Industrial companies and flu pandemic: anticipation and decision making in the face of a highly uncertain major event, the team includes Véronique Steyer (doctorante, ESCP-Europe) et Hervé Laroche (ESCP-Europe)

> Quantitative methods of uncertainty representation and modeling in risk analysis for decision-making practice, the team includes Enrico Zio and Nicola Pedroni (Politecnico di Milano)

> High-risk modernization projects, the team includes Thomas Reverdy (INP Grenoble) and Stéphanie Tillement (École des Mines de Nantes)

> Decision making in groups under uncertainty, the team includes Juliane Marold, Ruth Wagner and Dietrich Manzey (TU Berlin)


Filed under: risque, incertitude