The risks of occupational exposure to radiation need fuller and more explicit characterization. They also need a more developed quantitative comparison with more familiar occupational hazards. To achieve this, some criterion is needed for establishing the amount of detriment one should attribute to different harmful effects, e.g., from accidents at work which cause death, temporary or permanent disability; from fatal and nonfatal cancers; from developmental abnormalities and any likely nonstochastic effects; and from a range of genetic defects. No such criterion for comparing incommensurable kinds of harm can be scientifically defined, but one is essential if occupational exposure standards are to be put into perspective. A comparison of the frequency of fatal cancers and “severe” genetic defects with that of accidental deaths at work is admittedly incomplete. One possible starting point is from a review of the average length of healthy life and activity lost as a result of nonfatal industrial accidents and some curable cancers, or of gross impairment during the course of an active disease or as a result of many types of genetic defect, or of life expectancy lost absolutely owing to fatal accidents and diseases. Estimates are discussed to emphasize the areas in which opinion is most needed to translate measures of risk based simply on total time lost into acceptable criteria of perceived detriment. Standards of industrial safety are reviewed on this basis, both for risk from accidents at work and from radiation exposure, with evidence on the rate at which both types of risk are being reduced.
©1988Health Physics Society