A kitchen safety fable

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREOnce upon a time researchers found that many injuries in the home were due to kettles being left to boil dry.  Analysis of the accidents, that often lead to burns and fires, revealed that there were very small instances of malfunction of the kettles or the stoves and indeed the water usually behaved appropriately too.  Investigators have found that an unsafe act (leaving the kettle unsupervised) was the cause of the injuries in 88% of the cases.

The success story here was a campaign to make people aware that kettles shouldn’t be unsupervised.  Hard hitting television advertisements graphically brought home the agony and suffering caused by bloody idiots who let this happen.  Some advertisements struck at the heart of common unsafe acts by showing these idiots foolishly attempting to save time while the kettle boils by engaging in typical reckless behavior like going to the toilet, making a phone call, or getting milk from the refrigerator.

The campaign has been running for several years now and is a great success as surveys show that most people have seen, and remember, the advertisements.  Some pedantic scientists say that recall of the advertisements is not really proof that they’re effective.  These negative people are easily silenced by figures that show a consistent reduction in injuries to a point now where they’re virtually non-existent.

The agency that produces the campaign accepts that the risk in the use of kettles with automatic cut-off switches has contributed to the improvement.  But the campaign continues so as to guard against that well known killer, complacency.  As the Assistant Commissioner for Kitchen Policing, and Head of the Kettle Squad, regularly reminds viewers on the evening news, “there’s always the idiot factor out there in the kitchen”.

[For the inspiration please refer to Haight, F.A. 1973, ‘A Traffic Safety Fable’, Journal of Safety Research, vol. 5, no. 4, pp. 226-228]



  1. Andrew Reply

    The most common cause of kitchen fire is leaving frying oil heating whilst unattended and the immediate reaction to extinguish the fire. the most common reaction is to throw water into pan containing hot/super hot oil, with the resultant exposion.The better reaction is of course to use awet cemicalextinguisher or a fire blanket. Point to ponder does your kitchen have either ofthese items as a means to prevent thespread of a fire in your kitchen?

  2. Chris Reply

    Very true Andrew,
    I know my nan’s house has a fire blanket but I doubt she knows how to use it. When I was a chef I witnessed the deep fryer catch on fire (25L of oil at 195C). One of chefs did the correct thing and put the fire blanket over it to smother the flames…. believe it or not but the fire blanket caught on fire in front of our eye for any number of reasons.

    One of many tough examples I have in memory but that was a really tough day…

    Believe it or not, but I’m only 25! I can only imagine what a longer practiced chef has seen.

    1. Andrew Reply

      Chris , I understand what you have found, I was actually highlighting Dr Culvenor’s fable about ” As the Assistant Commissioner for Kitchen Policing, and Head of the Kettle Squad, regularly reminds viewers on the evening news, “there’s always the idiot factor out there in the kitchen”. I have had to assist in removing a Krispy Critters from a kitchen fires. The Fable is lost on me after my experiences in this area.

  3. Andrew Townsend Reply

    John – I have just looked up Frank Haight’s work. One of his papers is entitled ‘Why is the traffic safety community so often hostile to research?’. Delete the word ‘traffic’ and you have a description of many, if not most, OHS professionals.


    1. John Culvenor Reply

      Hi Andrew, Yes. Indeed. I would go along with that sentiment. In Australia this is one of the reasons for the absence of occupational safety research. It is seen here as an industrial contest rather than a knowledge-based field.

      But back to the kettle story and its purpose. The kettle scenario was intended as a parody on the nonsense produced by some bodies about accident causation and the claims of success of programs simply because they are coincident with improvements in outcomes.

      For instance the publicly owned traffic injury insurer here often basks in self-congratulation about changes in road trauma outcomes (like in the kettle story). e.g. they proudly announce that “On December 10th 1989 the first TAC commercial went to air. In that year the road toll was 776; by last year 2008 it had fallen to 303. A five minute retrospective of the road safety campaigns produced by the TAC over the last 20 years has been compiled. The montage features iconic scenes and images from commercials that have helped change they way we drive… (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z2mf8DtWWd8). How nice. Well done.

      The approach is of course rooted in the view that aberrant behavior in the main causes accidents as against the view that accidents are the result of random events arising from normal behavior in a given system (with aberrant behavior causing some). With a starting point that aberrant behavior is the cause, a solution seems to be to cajole, convince, push people toward the good behavior. If there are co-incident improvements then obviously the theory must be right!

      Does the bending of trees cause wind? Do umbrellas cause rain? Do birthday cakes make you older?


      1. Andrew Townsend Reply

        John – What a brilliant use of the English language in your final sentence. With your permission I will quote and reference you when I next write about ‘implied success by association’

        By the by ‘Safety Can’t Be Measured’ will have its book launch on September 22nd in a local pub. Subject to technical checks on the pub’s equipment Sidney Dekker and Erik Hollnagel may be there by video link. If you have Skype, it would be great if we could hook up even if it is only for 15 minutes. Recognising that it will be the early hours of the morning for you, I won’t be offended if you say ‘no’ but would be delighted if you said ‘yes’. The ‘launch’ is not intended to promote the book (it will either sell or it won’t); it is intended to send a strong message to the UK regulator and OHS profession that we are thoroughly disillusioned with current ways of managing safety and that there are better ways of doing it.

        To that end the ‘launch’ will be a glorious mixture of the local villagers and their kids, working people, project managers, safety people from other disciplines (healthcare and aviation) and academics. There will be no name tags and free drinks. The catalyst will be folk music. The responses to the idea of having a book launch outside of London have been mixed. The traditionalists have poured scorn on it, but most think it will work. I am currently negotiating to have a film crew there with also the possibility of a 28 minute documentary made by media students from one of the Southampton universities. And, of course, it is intended to promote the new philosophy of safety differently.


  4. Suzanne Reply

    Not to be outdone, in British Columbia Canada, several governmental agencies have come together to produce the latest and greatest behavioural safety compaign that covers off workers, driver, youth, and everyone else apparently who are injured because they make bad choices.


    1. John Culvenor Reply

      Thanks Suzanne.

      Yes. A similar mindset seems to flow throughout (although perhaps stronger in the road area than work – what do you think?).

      The traffic video provides us with this conclusion:

      “To prevent these injuries and fatalities every year in the province of BC requires the driver to do the right things; to not drive aggressively, to not speed, to not drive to fast for those road conditions. Just about everything that happens on the road is preventable”

      Accidents are caused by aberrant behavior. So they can be fixed by simple encouragement. So goes the seemingly logical response to the unhelpful theory.

      Perhaps forward them the kettle case study as an example of “Preventable” in the Home to put on the website.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *