The number 13 is notorious for being “unlucky.” But is that really the case? In the last two centuries, there have been numerous accidents that involved the number 13, from freak volcano eruptions to massive coal mine disasters. Recent research into the number 13 and Friday the 13th has been conflicting but shows the importance of perception of risk.
Origins of 13
13’s unlucky status can be traced back to the origins of Christianity. Popular culture holds that the number 13 first became unlucky following the Last Supper, in which Judas was allegedly the 13th person to sit at the table.1 An older origin tale has similar themes: in Norse mythology, it is said that Loki was the 13th guest at a dinner party and arranged for the god of darkness to shoot the god of joy and gladness, sending Earth into darkness.2 The unlucky 13th guest superstition grew over time, eventually morphing into several manifestations. One version says that if there are 13 guests, 1 will die by the end of the year. Sometimes the story is more specific: the 13th person to sit down will be dead within the year. The legends surrounding the number 13 were not limited to dinner parties; in maritime industry, it is often considered unlucky to have a boat with thirteen people onboard, or to launch a ship on the 13th day of the month.1
Significant Business Risk
The number 13 superstition eventually mixed with another superstition to form the unlucky Friday the 13th. The origins of Friday’s unlucky state are also lost to time, but the leading theory holds that it is also religiously based. Friday the 13th has become so notorious that one study estimates that almost $1 billion is lost every Friday the 13th “because people will not fly or do business they would normally do.”2
13-Related Years and Days for Major Accidents
For the superstitious, any year ending in 13 must seem particularly dangerous. 1913 did a great deal to hold up that superstition. In a coal mine in Wales, 439 people died in the Senghydd Colliery disaster of 1913. Across the world, 263 people died in a coal mine disaster in New Mexico that same year. 1913’s body count didn’t stop in the coal mines; it was also the year of the infamous Great Lakes storm in the United States (250 dead), and the year of the Binghamton Factory Fire that killed 31 people and resulted in massive revisions to safety codes in the United States.3 The thirteenth day of the month has also proven quite dangerous. November 13, 1985, the Nevado del Ruiz stratovolcano in Columbia erupted. The eruption melted the glaciers on nearby mountaintops, and the resulting flood killed 23,000 people in the town of Armero. February 13, 1937, a movie theater in Antoung, China caught fire; 658 people lost their lives. Going back even further in time, May 13 of 1835 the Neva sunk off of the Australian coast resulting in 224 fatalities, while several years earlier on January 13th a fire at a circus in Russia killed 430 people.3
The effects of the number 13 superstition are widespread. A recent British study found that although there are far fewer cars on the road on Friday the 13th, the number of hospital admissions due to car accidents was significantly increased.4 Builders sometimes avoid the use of the number 13 for equipment and floor numbers. For example, “more than 80 percent of high-rises lack a 13th floor. Many airports skip the 13th gate. Hospitals and hotels regularly have no room number 13. On streets in Florence, Italy, the house between number 12 and 14 is addressed as 12 and a half.”2 The fear of the number 13 even has an official, named diagnosis in modern-day medicine: triskaidekaphobia. Among the confirmed triskaidekaphobics are Stephen King and President Franklin Roosevelt.5
What the Stats Say
The research into the number thirteen suggests that statistically, it is not any more unlucky than any other number. Igor Radun of the University of Helsinki confirms that “no data exists, and will never exist, to confirm that the number 13 is an unlucky number.”5 It is true that for every 13-related accident, there is a list of similar accidents that completely unrelated to 13. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t precautions to be taken. Perception of risk is often just as important as real risk. If the culture in which you are working, or the contractor who is doing work for you, perceives that there is a risk, then the risk appears to exist.
Respect the culture of your workers
If you are working in an area known for superstition or with a group of people that are superstitious, respect their beliefs as much as possible. A perception of risk can cause people to act differently, and a perfect numbering system is not worth having workers that are nervous and distracted
- Understand that superstitions have repercussions
Even if you do not believe in a superstition, people’s perception that it exists may have effects. In Britain, data suggests that it may be safer to stay off of the roads on Friday the 13th. A conflicting study out of Norway finds that the roads are actually safer on Friday the 13th, perhaps because people are being more c autious due to the date.6 It is important to understand what repercussions a perception of risk will carry in the area in which you are working, regardless of whether or not the risk truly exists.
The unlucky reputation of the number 13 may be scientifically unfounded, but it still has important effects. In countries where the number 13 is considered particularly unlucky, constructing a building with a floor labeled 13 could be unwise; if people refuse to rent on the 13th floor, a large section of the building would go unoccupied. In any industry, safety and risk precautions must be taken. Admitting that the number 13 will cause more harm than good in certain situations is just one more precaution that is reasonably practicable, and could save not just time and money but people’s lives.
1. Mikkelson, David and Barbara. “Friday the 13th.” Snopes.com. Web. Accessed 1 October 2010. http://www.snopes.com/luck/friday13.asp
2. Roach, John. “Friday the 13th Phobia Rooted in History.” National Geographic News, 12 August 2004. Web. Accessed 1 October 2011. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/02/0212_040212_friday13.html
3. “List of accidents and disasters by death toll.” Wikipedia.com. Web. Accessed 1 October 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org
4. Scanlon, TJ, RN Luben, FL Scanlon, and N Singleton. “Is Friday the 13th Bad for your health?” BMJ, 1993 Dec 18-25; 307(6919):1584-6. About.com. Web. A
ccessed 1 October 2011. http://urbanlegends.about.com/gi/o.htm?zi=1/XJ&zTi=1&sdn=urbanlegends&cdn=newsissues&tm=43&gps=322_350_714_774&f=10&su=p284.12.336.ip_p504.1.336.ip_&tt=2&bt=1&bts=1&zu=http%3A//www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi%3Fcmd%3DRetrieve%26db%3DPubMed%26list_uids%3D8292946%26dopt%3DAbstract
5. Melina, Remy. “Is 13 really unlucky? The numbers say no.” Science on msncb.com, 13 May 2011. Web. Accessed 1 October 2011. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/43025442/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/really-unlucky-numbers-say-no/
6. “Friday the 13th not more unlucky, Dutch study shows.” Reuters, 12 June 2008. Web. Accessed 1 October 2011. http://uk.reuters.com/article/2008/06/12/us-luck-idUKL1268660720080612?feedType=RSS&feedName=oddlyEnoughNews
“The number 13.” Shutterstock.com
“Loki.” 18th century. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Processed_SAM_loki.jpg
“Burying the Binghampton Dead.” 1913. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fire_3842045553_7d48f07444_o.jpg
“Shanghai Elevator Bank.” 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ShanghaiMissingFloors.jpg
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