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Controlling Hazards

Trevor Kletz

Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology. An Inside Look at Catastrophes and Why They Happen. James R. Chiles. xiv + 338 pp. HarperBusiness, 2001. $28.

If I told a group of people that I was going to give each of them $100 but actually provided only $99, some of them might make more fuss about the missing dollar than about the unexpected bounty they received. A lot of people are like that in their attitude toward science and technology, which over the last two centuries have improved the lot of mankind beyond all recognition. We live far longer, richer lives in greater health and comfort than ever before. Even in the developing world, where much remains to be done, most people are better off than they used to be. But science and technology have taken back, as it were, a few percent of what they have given. Although we live longer, new hazards have shortened the lives of some people and injured others. In Inviting Disaster, James R. Chiles discusses hazards that cause accidents (rather than those with long-term effects, such as pollution).

Similar books describe the course of events and their effects on the people involved but ignore or move quickly over the causes of accidents and the actions necessary to prevent recurrences. Most books that do discuss causes focus on the most obvious ones. Chiles avoids this pitfall, emphasizing the underlying attitudes and systemic weaknesses that led to the accidents. Rather than relying just on published reports, when possible he visits the scene and talks to the people involved.

Well-written and easy to read, Inviting Disaster should appeal to the general public as well as to serious students of the subject. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I saw and commented favorably on the manuscript before its publication.)

My only reservation about the book is that Chiles focuses on controlling hazards (through strategies such as the use of protective equipment or the adoption of safer methods of working) rather than on eliminating hazards altogether, an approach that has become increasingly accepted in the oil, chemical and nuclear industries. This approach is illustrated by the following simple example: In the home, falls on stairs are a common cause of injury and even death, particularly in the old and the very young. The traditional safety adviser's reaction is to try to persuade people to use handrails and avoid running on the stairs, keep the stairs cleared of obstacles and perhaps fit nonslip coverings on the treads. A better solution is the single-story house: No one can fall down stairs that are not there, so this is an inherently safer solution than depending on protective equipment that may not be used or on procedures that may not be followed.

The release of toxic gas in Bhopal, India, in 1984 killed thousands of people. Most commentators missed the most important lesson to be drawn from the disaster. The material that leaked was not a raw material or end product but an intermediate—that is, a compound made and then converted into something else. It was convenient, but not essential, to store it. If it had been made, passed down a pipeline and then immediately used, the worst possible leak would have been limited to only a few kilograms. Chiles does mention this but appears to do so as an afterthought, in the final chapter rather than in the chapter on Bhopal. Elsewhere, in discussing the Challenger disaster he does not mention that leakage from the O-rings could have been avoided by using a one-piece design. In discussing Three Mile Island, he does not mention nuclear reactor designs that make a meltdown impossible by combining high-temperature resistance and high heat loss to preclude overheating of the fuel.

However, the book does give readers insight into the multiple causes of accidents. Simplistic accounts in the media formerly tended to blame the operator, the last person in the chain of events that led to the accident. Today the media are more likely to blame the manager, whom they assume must have put costs before safety. They forget that managers are only human and do not always realize the consequences of their actions or all the ways available for removing or controlling hazards.—Trevor Kletz, Visiting Professor, Loughborough University, United Kingdom

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