Statistically Speaking

“As the Chairman seems to have been unavoidably delayed, I will take the chair and continue,” the Vice-Chairman announced. “Yesterday you heard how the Company puts safety and environmental matters at the top of its agenda at all times. Now I will take questions from the floor.”

A short, red-faced man rose. He was well into middle age, balding and decidedly overweight. His dress could only be described as scruffy. “Jimmy Evans, Chairman of the Local Residents’ Association.” His voice was gruff and his accent hard.

“Welcome, Mr. Evans, what is your question?” The debonair, immaculately dressed Vice-Chairman might have been from another planet.

“We, some of us that is,” he began nervously, glancing around at the audience, “have lived here all of our lives. We were here before your factory. We demand our rights.”

The audience cheered.

“That is exactly why we are having this meeting, Mr. Evans,” the Vice-Chairman purred. “Now, do you have a specific question?”

Jimmy Evans drew a well-fingered piece of paper from his trouser pocket and began to read. “It is our belief that the Company pays only lip service to safety and environmental matters and that the mighty dollar and the return to shareholders come first.” He stumbled over some of the words. It was obvious to all that the statement had been written by someone else. “We understand that there have been a number of serious incidents on the plant in the past involving a dangerous chemical called, called, nitro something-or-other and that it is only a matter of time before people are killed. What are you going to do about it?” He was puffing and his face was redder than ever. He seemed relieved to be able to sit down.

“Let me assure everyone,” the Vice-Chairman began, “that safety is utmost in our minds at all times. We even carry out rigorous statistical calculations to prove how safe our factory is. We live and work by the motto – it is better to be safe than sorry.”

A loud aside of “lies, damn lies and statistics” came from somewhere in the room and was greeted with much amusement.

“Please address all comments through the chair,” the Vice-Chairman continued. “I will now hand over to our Chief Safety Officer, Doctor Smythe, who will answer your question in detail.” The Vice-Chairman also seemed relieved to be sitting down.

Dr.Smythe was a well-dressed, serious-looking man. He stood up and observed the audience over the top of his half-frame glasses. He might have been a schoolmaster about to address a class.”It is true that the Company handles acrylonitrile at high temperature and pressure. Acrylonitrile is dangerous because it is both highly flammable and highly toxic. There have been some small incidents, as you suggested, but these were very minor in nature and caused no threat to people in the factory or those living outside. It is a fact of life that people demand clean water to drink, safe food to eat, clothes to wear, electrical appliances to use. I could go on and on. None of these things would be possible without the chemicals we produce.” He paused for effect before continuing. “With all factories of this type there will always be a risk of a serious incident, like Seveso or Bhopal happening but, and I emphasise this, we have the latest, most technologically advanced fail-safe devices fitted so that this risk is reduced to an acceptable level. We spend a lot of money to be sure that we operate safely. As the Vice-Chairman stated; it is better to be safe than sorry.”

There were general mutterings from the floor as the candid nature of this answer sank in. Jimmy Evans consulted another piece of paper and began to rise to speak again.

“An acceptable risk to you may not be acceptable to us,” someone shouted from the back. Jimmy sank back into his chair with a sigh of relief.

Dr.Smythe continued without hesitation. “We have calculated that the risk of anyone being killed as a result of our factory is such that it will happen once in every ten million years. This is the same risk as being struck by lightning. Everyone is exposed to much greater risks every day just crossing the road or driving to work.”

Jimmy Evans slowly rose to his feet, cleared his throat, consulted his paper and spoke again. “When I were a lad, this site was farming land. Me and me mates used to play here. I remember one night there was a big storm and an old oak tree that stood where your nitro whatever tank is now was hit by lightning. Lightning can strike in the same place twice, you know.”

Dr.Smythe appeared to sigh and then smile. I did not mean that the plant would get struck. The risk to you, Mr. Evans, of being killed by our factory is about the same as you being killed by lightning. If you consider that risk is too high, you would never get out of bed in the morning.”

Jimmy Evans, his face now the colour of boiled beetroot, sat down muttering to himself about resigning at the next committee meeting.

A figure at the back stood up. “Peter Robinson, local resident and university student in mathematics. Is it not true that even though the risk is once in ten million years it could just as easily happen tomorrow as in ten million years’ time?”

Dr.Smythe answered. “It is true, statistically, that the event could happen anytime. If it happened today then on average it would not happen again for ten million years. However our systems are fail-safe and we have had no serious incidents in thirty years.”

“Is it not true that the longer we have gone without a serious incident the more likely it is to occur?” The student asked.

“Statistically that is true, but in real-life our safety record is second to none. Think about the risk. How many people do you know who have been struck by lightning?”

Dr.Smythe sat down. There was silence. The entire audience considered his question.

The Vice-Chairman and Jimmy Evans both got up at the same time and began to speak. A young woman entered the room and interrupted them.

“I’m sorry to intrude but I have an urgent message for the Vice-Chairman.” She moved forward and handed him a folded piece of paper.

The audience watched as he slowly opened the paper and read. The colour drained from his face and he slumped down in his seat. He sat for a few moments, took a drink of water then stood up and faced the audience.

“It is my sad duty to have to report the death of our Company Chairman. It appears he was having an early morning round of golf, before our meeting. There was a freak storm and he was struck by lightning.”