Someone is coming up the stairs toward me. Even though we’re both wearing masks, I hold my breath, do-si-do sideways and squeeze past him while being careful to avoid contact with the railing.

Am I a little paranoid? Perhaps.

Hand WashingOr maybe COVID-19 is pushing us all closer to the edge, blurring the lines between prudence and phobia. The New York Times has noted that with so many people washing their hands raw to protect against the virus, people with diagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder are having serious difficulty determining if their own behavior is normal or not.

But where do you draw the line? How much is too much? Even if you never leave the house, never touch anything without gloves, wear an N99 mask to open the mail and clear all rooms with a disinfectant fog grenade before entering, life’s hazards will not disappear.

According to Dr. Sanjeev Kakar at the Mayo Clinic, COVID-19 stay-at-home orders actually led to an increase of injuries from household accidents. (See the National Safety Council’s home safety page for prevention tips.)

Every time you walk or run, you run some risk of injury. Then again, sitting all day increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes. (And then there was the guy who was killed by his own office chair.)

In the Laboratory Safety Institute’s courses, we illustrate the point with this chart listing several activities that increase a person’s chance of death by 0.00001%.

Risks slide

William Lowrance, an influential thinker in the field of safety, stated the timeless principle: “Safety is a judgment about the acceptability of risk.” Since it is impossible to avoid all risk, all we can do is make a judgment about what level of risk is acceptable.

But who decides the acceptable level of risk when it comes to COVID? Even U.S. disease chief Anthony Fauci had to second-guess his own safety advice. What one considers an acceptable level of risk may be completely unacceptable to another. And since we all live on this planet together, what you consider an acceptable level of risk could affect others in a drastic way.

We’re all trying to figure out where to draw lines. Maybe I’m overboard, maybe we’re all a little overboard, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. This must be what they keep calling the “new normal.”