Let’s get trivial

Let’s get trivial

Not all facts rock his boat, but trivia junkie VITTORIO BOLLO does wonder why grain dust is listed as a Table 1 hazardous chemical substance in our law (‘fact’), while the knowledge that barely two percent of chemicals on the planet have been properly tested for cancer-causing properties is regarded as mere trivia.

I’m almost finished reading what has been a fascinating book called The Importance of Being Trivial by Mark Mason. It’s an ode to trivia and all things trivial. The blurb on the back cover starts off: “If you’re intrigued by the fact that Jack the Ripper was left-handed, or that Heinz ketchup flows at 0,7 miles per day – and, more importantly, intrigued by why you’re intrigued – then this book is required reading.” Definitely required reading for a trivia nut like me. To some, knowing that a notorious serial killer was left-handed or that tomato sauce actually has a travel speed may just seem silly. Many would even argue that knowledge of such facts is not only trivial but entirely pointless.

After all, the dictionary defines trivia as ‘insignificant or inessential matters; trifles.’ Insignificant, inessential, trifles – all very unimportant.

So why do I love trivia so much? I always have. There are certain facts about the natural world, for example, that tickle my fancy, more as a ‘triviaphile’ than as an environmentalist. Many people may know that the fastest animal on Earth is the cheetah, but how many people know that the greyhound is the second-fastest animal, accelerating from zero to almost 90 km per hour in one second flat? Or that you could fit the entire population of Earth inside the Grand Canyon, with room to spare? Or that the ostrich not only has the largest eye of any land animal, but that its eye is slightly larger than its brain?

Is this information really useless? Is there a difference between that which is ‘meaningful’ fact and that which is ‘merely’ trivial? Who decides? Who knows if a piece of knowledge is pointless or of little merit in the greater scheme of things?

As many of us know, the SHE industry, like any other, is replete with facts, figures, statistics and more statistics. Any safety professional will know that the maximum height-to-width ratio of stacking allowed in this country, without requiring special permission from the Department of Labour, is 3:1. Likewise, a health professional will know that an occupational disease must be reported by a medical practitioner within 14 days of diagnosis. These are ho-hum facts known by all and sundry in industry. Facts like these abound in an industry that seems to thrive on the minutiae of how to ensure you don’t kill people or destroy the environment.

Facts like the 3:1 stacking ratio hardly rock my boat. Even in environmental management there are facts that are considered to be boring beyond belief. Who gets excited by the fact that the minimum capacity of a bund should be 110% that of the fuel or chemicals in storage? (Some trivia for the uninitiated – a bund is a containment facility that surrounds a tank or drum; it serves to hold the contents in the event of tank failure, preventing spillage or leaks, which is important when the contents are toxic or forceful – Ed). Not to belittle or diminish the importance of stacking ratios or bund capacities, but I sure as hell don’t. In management system training or consulting, these facts are indeed important, and are required knowledge for those entering the industry. They have their place. They’re even taken for granted as acquired professional knowledge that one simply must know. Be that as it may, as far as facts go, they’re still as dull as ditchwater.

Are there not perhaps some facts that are more intriguing, more unusual, even more entertaining? Should these not be the facts that make learning more interesting and even enjoyable? One would think so. Yet I am constantly surprised at how lesser-known facts, which may border on the trivial but are surely more interesting than knowing when to apply for an atmospheric emission licence, can completely fly over the heads of learners in a class. When I excitedly reveal that South Africa is the third most biodiversity-rich country in the world (only Brazil and Indonesia having more biodiversity than we do), which I think is amazing, I can literally hear it fall as flat as a lead balloon. My enthusiasm deflates in an instant. More species of plant in the Cape floristic kingdom alone (and that’s just the Cape Peninsula, I’ll have you know) than all of North America? Boring – next? Why should these ‘Did you knows?’ regarding biodiversity and plant species matter? Well, because they provide us with evidence of the astounding natural heritage we have in this country, which should surely make us want to protect the environment and our constitutionally-guaranteed environmental rights even more. Or so you would think.

Some of these more supposedly trivial facts can even be deadly serious. Yet they fall flat, flat, flat. Why is it that I seem to be one of only very few people who are freaked out by the fact that barely two percent of chemicals in the world have been empirically and independently tested for their carcinogenic properties? Should that fact, which I do not believe is at all trivial, not shape who we are – not only as citizens but as SHE professionals? Is that not a ginormous risk potential in and of itself? I defy anyone to argue the logic of at least acknowledging the gravitas of that little bit of trivia.

Would it make a difference if it were required that all chemicals in South Africa had to be independently tested for their carcinogenic potential (which, let me stress again, is most certainly not the case) because that was now mandated by law? It probably would make a huge difference. So what is it about legislation that makes any provision therein so defined, so final? It seems ironic that law should be so definitive and so iron-clad when everyone in the SHE field constantly, and rightfully, harps on about how legal compliance is nothing more than a ‘minimum requirement’ for any risk management, and that the true benchmark for excellence should be ‘world’s best practice.’ Yet the fact that barely two percent of chemicals on this planet have been properly tested for cancer-causing properties remains mere trivia, while the occupational exposure limit for grain dust is somehow rock solid, given that it’s stipulated as a Table 1 hazardous chemical substance in our law. One remains mere trivia, the other hard and irrefutable fact. Strange that, is it not?

So do trivia and those little-known facts have a place in our industry? I believe that they do. Absolutely so. It was the English classic scholar and poet AE Housman (1859 – 1936) who stated, “All knowledge is precious, whether or not it serves the slightest human use.” I absolutely agree. Knowledge is not only power, it’s there for the taking. And what defines this thing called ‘knowledge’ should not be elevated to the status of fact or relegated to that of trivia. Rather, it should be celebrated for what it is – that which has marked the very progress of humanity. Your sense of wonder may be different to mine, but it is that sense of wonder that defines us. It is the very thing that makes us human.


Vittorio Bollo achieved an LL B in Law and Politics from a UK university and a Master’s degree in International Environmental Law from a Canadian university. He has over 12 years experience in the SHE field, primarily in consulting, training and R&D. He joined NOSA to work in its growing R&D department, where he continues to do work in environmental/SHE risk management and corporate governance, as well as his chief passion, sustainability.

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