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How-to: A close-to-home example of risk analysis

I participate in an online cooking forum. A few weeks back we had a discussion about the relative safety of brushes to clean a grill (barbecue or indoor). This might seem like a mundane topic with no lessons for us, but as it happens it’s a case study on risk assessment.

You might not know it (I sure didn’t), but every summer in this country a handful of people die from ingesting an unnoticed steel wire in their grilled food. A slightly larger handful don’t die, but require emergency surgery which often includes a long recuperation period.

The aforementioned wires come from the bristles of brushes designed to clean grill grates. The bristles break off, or fall out of, the brush and stick to the grates, where they then get picked up by the meat being grilled. When the hungry diner eats the hamburger with the bristle fragment, the little wire enters the digestive system and pokes holes in organs that ought not have holes punched in them. Peritonitis is a typical result, which if not treated promptly results in death. 

A learning opportunity

On this particular forum, the topic turned into a bit of a debate about whether, in light of the risk, one should avoid using such brushes to clean their grill. Some believed that no one should ever use steel brushes to clean a grill, and others believed the problem was overblown.

After some back-and-forth between members of the forum, I took the question back to the basics of risk mitigation: what is the likelihood of someone ingesting a bristle, and what might be the impact of them doing so?

The likelihood is relatively low; after all, out of the millions of grilled meals served each year, only a few people suffer accidental bristle ingestion. In other words, it doesn’t happen all that often.

If someone does swallow one of those bristles, however, the impact is relatively high: death or critical internal injuries. Severe pain, big medical bills, and long recovery times.

What, then, is the conscientious barbecue owner to do? How should he/she address this risk — or should it even be addressed?

Putting risk into proper perspective

In Prepping For Life [link], I talked about looking at any risk through the lens of probability (likelihood) and impact. Naturally, the high-probability, high-impact risks should be addressed (mitigated) first. That seems pretty self-evident, as does the idea that low-probability, low-impact risks be managed last.

But what about those in the middle? Those that are high-probability, lower impact, and those that are of lower probability but higher impact? How does one choose to address these kinds of risks, where the value of doing so isn’t as clear?

Part of the answer depends on the costs (monetary and otherwise) of mitigating the risk. 

Low risk but easy to mitigate

In the case of the grill brush, the cost of mitigation is very low: simply don’t use that kind of brush. Find another way to clean the grill grates that doesn’t involve little metal needles. As it happens, there are all kinds of methods that only require the grill’s owner to adjust his/her habits slightly. Some of the alternatives are even cheaper than the brush.

The lack of importance suggested by the low probability is offset by the low cost and simplicity of eliminating the danger. In other words, the risk is small but it’s neither expensive nor difficult to mitigate; what might have been an unclear choice suddenly snaps into focus. 

After all, if the cost of mitigation of a high-impact risk is as small as the likelihood, is there really a reason to ignore it?

Thinking clearly

This isn’t about barbecuing; it’s about the value of looking at risk, any risk, systematically. It takes emotions, perceived status, and posturing out of the decision-making process. 

In the case of the grill brush, some of the forum participants thought that even talking about such an uncommon risk was “silly” and opined that they simply wouldn’t be bothered to consider it. They chose to  ignore the impact of the risk, which may be very high. 

Only when both impact and probability are quantified can you even look at mitigation strategies — which sometimes require surprisingly little resources to implement.

If you can eliminate a high-impact risk quickly, easily, and with very little cost, why not do so and never have to worry about it again?

-=[ Grant ]=-

  • Posted by Grant Cunningham
  • On May 22, 2023