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The fluidity of risk: Variable vulnerabilities and uncertainties of behavioural response to natural and technological hazards

James Lewis (Datum International, Marshfield, UK)

Disaster Prevention and Management

ISSN: 0965-3562

Article publication date: 13 May 2019

Issue publication date: 11 September 2019




Considered alone, risk is static; the purpose of this paper is to illustrate risk not as static but as a fluid condition dependent, for example, upon circumstances of its context in changeable vulnerability and behavioural responses of people facing risk.


Psychology provides strong evidence of behavioural response when facing hazards; technological disasters providing more evidence of behavioural responses to hazards and risk than response to disasters assumed to be “natural”. Initial and subsequent behavioural responses may critically affect ultimate outcomes. Post-event inquiries into technological disasters have revealed actions and inactions which created or aggravated subsequent consequences and their aftermath.


Decisions taken at a Japanese school between the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and details of the 2017 fire at a tower-block in London, UK, indicate, in spite of training, that rigidity, uncertainty, hesitation or waver may affect critical decisions and their consequences. Pre- and post-disaster behaviour may not follow preferred patterns. Fear of imagined or real events may induce unanticipated denial of the reality of risk. Physical changes made after assessments of risk may not be recognised as affecting risk.

Research limitations/implications

Few published examples exist of public inquiries following disasters assumed to be from natural causes.

Practical implications

Reports of inquiries into technological disasters provide significant examples of behavioural responses which, if replicated, may influence outcomes of disasters labelled as “natural”.

Social implications

Awareness of risk as a fluid condition will facilitate realisation of effects upon risk of uncompleted or ongoing works, inappropriate behavioural responses, undeveloped resilience and of the need for regular reassessments of risk.


This study encourages comprehension of risk as an evolving and fluid condition.



Lewis, J. (2019), "The fluidity of risk: Variable vulnerabilities and uncertainties of behavioural response to natural and technological hazards", Disaster Prevention and Management, Vol. 28 No. 5, pp. 636-648.



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