You Didn’t Mean Not To

A couple of weekends ago, a friend (Friend 1) and I went to stay at the home of another friend (Friend 2) for a night. (Note: ‘Friend 1’ and ‘Friend 2’ are not their actual names.) The evening we arrived, Friend 2 cooked dinner and, when the dishes were done, left a Pyrex bowl on one of the stove’s heating elements.

The following morning Friend 1 got up and went to make a cup of tea, but turned on the wrong heating element on the stove – the one with the Pyrex bowl on it – by mistake. Of course, the bowl heated up. And then exploded. Which is what woke me up.

Years ago, Charles B. Perrow (now a professor at Yale University) wrote a book called Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies. His argument was that in some extremely complex systems, like nuclear reactors, there is so much that could possibly go wrong that it is extremely likely that something will go wrong on a regular basis. That is, accidents for these systems can’t really be considered ‘unusual’ – instead, they are normal. Thus, the title of the book.

Now an electric stove is not exactly nuclear technology, but they are surprisingly high-risk. How many times has it happened to you that you’ve turned on the wrong element on a stove, even at your own house let alone a friend’s?

Part of the problem, I think, is with the design of the control panel on many standard model electric stoves. The dials are typically on the back of the stove, positioned vertically, while the elements themselves are horizontal. Each dial is labeled with one of the four positions colored differently from the rest.

So, to turn on an electric stove, you need to look at an input panel that it in a different plane from the location of the desired action. Then, you need to find the one with a spot that is colored differently from the rest. Then, you turn the dial and a single bulb lights up which tells you the general concept that the stovetop is on, but not which specific burner is on. Unless you can see in infrared, you can’t tell immediately which element is heating up.

Getting this wrong is so easy, even for people who use have used their stove hundreds of times before, that manufacturers have started adding all sorts of features to stoves to make turning the elements on goof-proof. There are lights next to each element individually. The dials are put on the stovetop itself. Other lights tell you if an element is still warm even after its power has been shut off.

This seems pretty damn complicated just to make a cup of tea.

When explaining what happened, Friend 1 said, “I didn’t mean to.” Personally, I don’t blame either of them for what happened (It wasn’t my Pyrex bowl anyhow, so it doesn’t really matter to me). But I can’t bring myself to think that this was a ‘normal’ accident either.

Judging by the ratio of ‘Danger’ to ‘Complexity of Use’, electric stoves probably top the list of things most people use on a daily basis. (Cars are more dangerous, but far more complicated to use. Maybe cigarettes have a higher ratio of danger-to-complexity, but most people don’t use them.)

In just the past few years I’ve had (1) Friend 1 blow up a Pyrex bowl, (2) a distant relative leave a full glass bottle of cooking oil on an element and then blow up his entire kitchen, (3) two Ph.D. graduate students together put oil in a wok and then forget about it, filling the room with smoke, blackening the wall of their kitchen, and almost killing them both, (4) a friend leave a pot of water on the stove, boil all of the water out of the pot, and then melt off the bottom of the pot. (There might be other incidents I’m not aware of or can’t remember off the top of my head.)

I’m certain that in all these cases the people said, “I didn’t mean to.” But, if you think about, in each of those cases, they didn’t really mean not to, either. If you regularly store Pyrex bowls or cooking oil on your elements, you run the risk of blowing those things up (or making it easier for someone else to). And if you’re in the habit of putting something on a hot stove and then walking away, some small percentage of the time you’re going to forget to return in time. (So, accidents will be ‘normal’ not because of the complexity of the system, but just because of the sheer number of times an accident potentially could happen.)

Chemical research laboratories are a lot like kitchens and they are probably one of the politest places in the world. (In general, you don’t start a fight with someone carrying a gallon jug of hydrochloric acid. But you don’t generally do anything that would cause someone to start a fight with you either.) When you walk behind someone, you give them a little more personal space than most other places, because even though they are just standing there stirring something, they might step back suddenly if they don’t know you’re there. (If something goes wrong, they might need to step back suddenly even if they do know you’re there.) When you’re done stirring something, you don’t leave the stirring rod in the container. It can be difficult to see the rod sticking out of the container and, if you don’t know it’s there, or don’t remember it when you are moving your arms around, you’ll tip the cup over and spill it. (This is the reason I cringe when I see people drinking from a cup with a straw at their computer. When you move your hand, you need to remember the straw every single time or else you run the risk of tipping the cup over onto the computer.) And you never store items on electric elements or walk away when a burner is on.

Of course I’m not saying that I don’t ever cause accidents. All I’m saying is that, when I do cause accidents, it’s usually a result of a failure on my part to think of contigencies. When you are about to set a bottle of oil on a burner, or turn on a burner when you think a bowl is on a different burner, ask yourself the question, “What could possibly go wrong?”

If you think “Nothing”, then you’re not thinking hard enough.


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