Do Accidents Happen?
Mar 10, 2022

This may sound like an odd question, especially in this journal, but once you read Jessie Singer’s new book There Are No Accidents, you’ll know why we ask. Every book starts with a trigger event. Sometimes it’s an overheard conversation, a chance meeting, even a dream. This book begins when a young man on a bicycle is run down and killed by a drunk driver with a high-powered car on a sidewalk in Manhattan.* Is it another tragic accident—or something else? Are accidents something that fall from the sky at random, or do they happen because we permit them to happen? Do we manage risk, or do we simply organize the data after risks take their toll? That is the question.

 

The book’s thesis will sound like anathema to most risk folks, so let’s put it right up front: Singer tracks accidental death in America from turn of the century factories and coal mines to today’s urban highways, rural hospitals, and Superfund sites. Drawing connections between traffic crashes, opioid overdoses, and major oil spills, Singer shows that, in some cases, what we call accidents are hardly random. Rather, who lives and dies by an accident in America is defined by money and power. Yes, dear reader, I too began the book by pushing back on the author’s thesis. I still think it’s overstated, but she has exhaustively researched her topic and its history. In fact, some of her less-radical statements have an important measure of validity. Even the more radical parts of her thesis uncover troubling facts and incidents.

 

Some books are good to read because they challenge the reader.** The author strives to make you rethink your comfortable assumptions and to face aspects of the topic that you haven’t seen. For example, Singer points out repeatedly how certain types of accidents and injuries happen to specific communities more often than others. Did you know that Latin Americans are more likely to be injured or killed in a bicycle accident than other groups in the U.S., while serious or fatal pedestrian accidents occur more often in African American communities? Her argument is full of similar statistical anomalies.

 

When a large group of random citizens is asked to assess the level of risk in their daily lives—just going about the business of living—white males assign a much lower level of risk than any other group, including white women. Does this mean anything? Would a similar survey of the employees in your organization have a similar or different outcome? That’s a really good question and an example of the kind of risk stat that even dyed-in-the-wool risk professionals, like us, usually don’t have access to.

 

Singer tells us why some federal bureaus do not allow the word “accident” to be used in official business and reporting. The word “accident” implies that the event was random, utterly unpredictable, completely unmanageable, and outside human control. As such, “accident” takes everyone involved off-the-hook. Well, nothing could be done, right? But is that true? Singer’s blunder by blunder account of the meltdown at Three Mile Island makes the term “accident” completely inappropriate for that event and it will make you wonder how many other high profile, supposed “accidents” were anything but.

 

My own favorite example, which I use in workshop presentations on information output design, is Air France Flight 447. The airplane had one small recoverable equipment failure, but the cockpit had eight different instrument systems recording the event in eight different ways. The three pilots on the flight deck were arguing about what this cacophony of information meant as they flew their Boeing 777 into the midnight Atlantic, killing all on board.*** Was that an "accident"?

 

Having a good argument with Jessie Singer will make us all better risk managers. You may well reject her view of how we all deal with risk and what damages disproportionately spill over into disadvantaged communities, but you will realize that “accident” should always be in quotation marks, and you will look at risk with a new eye and a deeper understanding. Read the book and then ask yourself, as honestly as you can, “Are there ‘accidents’ in our risk world or is this a comfortable fiction we adopt to make life easier?”


*The young man in question was the love of Jessie Singer’s life. The depth of her tragic loss fuels the intensity of her argument. This book is much more than an intellectual exercise in risk analytics, although it never descends into a radical polemic, which is a tribute to the author’s intellectual integrity.


**Henry David Thoreau’s famous book, Walden, is a good example. You’re a better person after going toe-to-toe with the author, whatever your conclusions might be about life at Walden Pond.


***Yes, three. No engineer or designer ever thought it necessary to harmonize the different systems as they were bolted into the cockpit. I have read the transcript from the black box recording. It will chill you to your core.

Air France Flight 447 as seen from 18,000 feet down on the bottom of the Atlantic. Was this an “accident” or - something else?

Courtesy of the Bureau d’Enquetes et d’Analyses pour la securite de l’aviation

 

Stress and Demography: The Devil’s Double Whammy? 

Back in the day, one of the leading cartoon strips in most newspapers was Al Capp’s Li’l Abner. Capp’s strip popularized—and maybe invented—the term “double whammy”, a type of hex that brings a double load of bad luck to the recipient. If you are hit with a double whammy, you are in serious trouble—twice over. While reading about the ongoing struggles of the Great Resignation, this phrase came to mind. The always excellent reporter, Nancy Grover, wrote in a recent issue of workerscompensation.com, “The vast majority of employers surveyed – 70 percent – believe they do an excellent job addressing workforce mental health. But only 47 percent of workers agree.” Her piece, “Employers Find Ways to Stave off Mass Exodus,” provides a timely report on current developments in employer efforts to retain critically needed people.

 

Some employers are coming up with better ways to meet employee needs. Some have even started talking to employees and then listening to them, as in, “Some companies, for example, have stepped up their employee engagement surveys to get the pulse of their workforces. They are especially focused on burnout, which is unique to each person.” As the pandemic seems to be easing, employee restlessness may be ebbing as well, but as one expert put it, “Right now, even though we kind of know what we are doing there's still three times as much emotional distress as there was pre-COVID.”

 

As we’ve noted in earlier issues of this August e-rag, employee burnout and accompanying resignations are a major risk issue and not just a problem for HR. Nancy’s report from the front indicates that the problem is receding slightly with COVID, but it shows no signs of going away. Blue skies, rainbows, and birds singing appear to be a way of the future. Especially when you consider that we are now entering the height of Boomers hitting retirement.

 

The crest of the Baby Boom, from 1953 and continuing for several more years, was a period when families were moving into larger homes and local towns were frantically building new schools, a distant memory today. That’s the other half of the double whammy—droves of folks heading for their golden years. These are often your most experienced and reliable employees, despite the Silicon Valley myth that we’re all washed up at 40. That may be true in the world of, say, making electronic games, but in the real world maturity—emotional and intellectual—still counts.

 

Finding ways to stem the outflow of talent would be critical at any time, but when retirement age meets the pandemic, well, that’s the definition of a double whammy, right there.

In Capp’s cartoon stories, Evil-Eye Fleegle was the master of the double whammy.

 

Quick Take 1:
Profiles in Damage

Not a lot happens out here in Bucks County. Our neighbors hold the deed to their farm signed by William Penn, Lord Proprietor, in 1700. Our office is in a “new” house, built in 1860. But every now and again, the 21st Century sneaks in, rears its ugly head. We made the news last week with a case which is almost a template for several evolving concepts of product liability. You can read all about it in our local newspaper (Bucks County sues over 'forever chemicals' - The Morning Call (mcall.com)) , a good article and well written.

 

Being quite contemporary, the liability suit filed by the local public authorities is based on the presence of “forever chemicals” which are alleged to “have contaminated water and soil throughout the region [emphasis added].” That last phrase moves us into a relatively new area of contention. We’re not talking about a defined patch of ground with a rusty chain link fence around it. The suit claims that the PFAS and related chemicals were not only used in particular locations, but they have “also been found elsewhere in the county, in water, soil and other natural resources.”

 

That’s kind of a large target. The suit says that the chemicals which were used years ago have leached into local aquifers and streams. Fish from the Neshaminy Creek are not safe to eat, for example, although the chemicals in question were not used near the creek itself. This controversy has been going on since 2018 when a couple of local municipalities initially filed suit, but now the County of Bucks is itself a plaintiff.

 

While this action is not unique, it provides an informative profile of a new, growing dimension in concepts of liability and of the nature and scope of the damage alleged. Does this have any possible relevance for your organization? Well, you might want to think about the ideas behind this situation—liability stretches back many decades, it literally "flows" from specific incidents and locations across a whole landscape, the class of plaintiffs can be an entire county, the possibilities for remediation endless. Could something like this happen on your watch? If you’re not sure, talk to your broker.

 

Other than that, it’s been pretty quiet here in Bucks since the unpleasantness in 1776 when we gave King George his walking papers, but every now and again, something occurs. We’ll try not to let this happen again.

 

Quick Take 2:
Something for Everyone

Two years in, how are businesses adapting to the new realities of the (almost) post-COVID world? An article in The Atlantic offers a neat overview on everything from new ways of “hoteling” in offices to the continuing fade of the five-day workweek. The provisional conclusion for now is that we are in a widely experimental period with many different industries and companies auditioning a bewildering array of new ideas or rethinking existing concepts. And of course, every one of these ideas has a risk tag attached.

 

The joy of this article by Derek Thompson is its range, with many nooks and crannies to explore, but here are a few items that caught our attention:

  • “‘I talk to hundreds of companies about remote work, and 95 percent of them now say they’re going hybrid, while the other 5 percent are going full remote,’ Nick Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University*, told me. The exceptions to the rule, such as Goldman Sachs, are scarce.”
  • Yet later, we learn that actual office space rentals and renewals are only off by around 1%. Why? Well, what if all the employees working hybrid schedules show up at the office on the same day?
  • Hybrid schedules are also reshaping the idea of the workweek. The typical five-day workweek may dissolve into something stranger and less settled, as in a three-day office week that exists within a longer workweek.
  • While hybrid work is suitable only for a minority of employees, these workers are highly visible and other people in very different jobs are already asking about similar accommodations. Mr. Thompson sees this new age of changing and adjusting work schedules and environments as being a “beautiful mess.” For example, read his article and find out what “yachtifying the office” might mean for the workplace.

 
The point for risk managers is that various alterations and accommodations seem to be happening quickly. Our challenge is to stay abreast of new developments being implemented—yachtifying and otherwise—as they may impact a whole range of risk measures, from policy amendments to new health and safety concepts. The most likely bet, if our author here is correct, is that post-COVID life and all its attendant risks will have some number of new and dazzling features and challenges.

 

Ask yourself what the following recent survey responses suggest about post-COVID arrangements and related risks:

*Stanford again—so you know it’s right.

 

Say It Isn’t So. . .

Once upon a time, good news and bad news came in discreet packages. Nowadays, not so much. For example, this bulletin from an article carried by ITL:

 

In just the last six quarters, the normal and expected phenomenon of a car getting cheaper as it gets older has been flipped on its head…

 

The writer goes on to point out that AI models have not been trained on this new curve, thus throwing off portfolio stress tests by perhaps 50 to 70%. Carriers, we are told, are busily filing rate increases.

 

Well, the good news is that your fleet is now worth almost as much as you paid for it a few years ago, but the bad news is that the formulas your claims people are using to project reserves are probably running low. In target shooting we call that shooting the dirt.

 

Remember the ancient curse? 愿您的孩子生活在有趣的时代 (May your children live in interesting times.) I am so old I remember when that was a joke.

 

Words to Remember

Many plants begin to poke their green heads up in March, “mud month” to the Anglo-Saxons. But a hardy few actually bloom in (very) late March. Perhaps the most welcome, along with the crocuses and snowdrops, is the English primrose (primula vulgaris). One March, a few hundred years ago, the poet, Robert Herrick, sent this:

 

Note with a gift of primroses

 

Ask me why I send you here
This sweet infanta of the year.
Ask me why I send to you
This primrose thus bepearled with dew.
I will whisper to your ears.
The sweets of love are mixed with tears.

*Stanford again—so you know it’s right.

 

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