Industrial disasters: pointing the finger

The murky causes and effects of the recent spate of accidents in industry, and what the media's reaction to them could mean

Thaddeus Best gives us his take on the murky causes and effects of the recent spate of accidents in industry, and what the media's reaction to them could mean for the future.

On August 5th, 2010, the Copiapó mine in Chile collapsed with 33 men inside it, almost a kilometre below the earth's surface. Trapped underground for a record 69 days, surviving on barely one meal a day, these men became a worldwide media sensation. News crews gathered from around the world as the rescue operation got underway and the first miners emerged over two months after the collapse. But even as the rights to the heroic story were being signed to major film studios and the miners relished their short-lived celebrity, another mine collapsed, almost 6000 miles across the South Pacific Ocean, in New Zealand. This time, there were no survivors.

The two gas explosions at the Pike River mine killed 29, becoming the deadliest mine accident in New Zealand for 93 years. Earlier this year, the Deepwater Horizon spill caused 11 deaths and 17 injuries as a wellhead blew out, leading to the largest accidental marine oil spill in human history. And just three months ago in Hungary, over 1 million cubic metres of toxic sludge killed four people and injured 120 others when a dam burst, leading to a state of emergency in three European countries.

A risky business

It's easy to argue that mining and oil drilling, along with many other primary sector jobs are intrinsically more dangerous than others. But these are not isolated events, and the sheer scale of the devastation caused by these recent catastrophes combined with other evidence coming to light suggests that corporations are taking risks at the expense of safety in order to fuel ever greater profits.

The San Esteban Mining Company, responsible for the Copiapo mine which collapsed in Chile, had received 42 fines over the last six years for breaching safety regulations and repeatedly ignored warnings over their unsafe working conditions which had led to the death of eight workers over the past decade.

Similarly, a United States federal investigation into the Deepwater Horizon accident revealed that BP overlooked significant warning signs, including a faulty cement seal on the well, interpreting a failed negative pressure test as a success and replacing heavy drilling mud (used to cool and lubricate wells) with seawater. Despite this, most of the media attention was focused on BP's failure to plug the well following the accident, rather than on the overarching culture of complacency towards safety issues.

And in recent weeks it was revealed that Transocean, the company charged with responsibility for operating the Deepwater Horizon oilrig narrowly avoided a strikingly similar accident on a rig in the North Sea just four months before the Deepwater Horizon spill.

An internal review of the incident shows the crew operating the rig failed to act on key indicators and did not put in place adequate precautions for an emergency. Disaster was only averted by an automated blowout preventer, much like the one that failed on the Deepwater rig. So why didn't this close shave trigger a review of safety procedures?

These recent disasters have raised questions over whether there should be a greater emphasis on industrial regulation. Historically, industrial safety regulations in countries such as Britain were almost non-existent and disasters were frequent. However, accident rates in the UK have dropped from one in every 1000 workers at the beginning of the last century, to an average of less than one for the entire period between 2003 and 2007. The most notable change however, has been in the attitudes towards accidents. Companies used to consider accidents to be an occupational risk, and any fatalities were viewed as a tragic but inevitable consequence of working in a dangerous environment.

All this changed with the introduction of health and safety legislation in the 20th century. Although now viewed by some as a byword for petty council bureaucracy, the impact to accident rates was dramatic. Furthermore, health and safety legislation meant that those deemed to be responsible for safety could be charged with involuntary manslaughter if convicted of negligence in the aftermath of a fatality.

Going down for negligence

So should companies guilty of negligence be charged with criminal offences? There is clear evidence that BP failed to act upon several key warning signs that resulted in the tragic deaths of 11 men. And in legal history there are several key precedents for the prosecution of those deemed to be culpable of negligence. The "Great White" disaster in the USA is one such example. The rock band Great White were playing at a nightclub which caught fire after the band's pyrotechnics ignited the highly flammable soundproofing. Over 100 people, including one band member, died in the resulting fire. The band's manager and club owners were each charged with 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter with criminal negligence. One of the club owners was sentenced to 15 years in prison, the other given a ten year suspended sentence, and the manager sentenced to 15 years.

However, charging individuals or companies which are part of vast multinationals is a decidedly more complex matter. In BP's situation, a clear case would have to be made that cost-cutting steps were the deciding factor that resulted in the fatal explosion. Even then, individual culpability is hard to prove.

But even if it's hard to pin the blame for industrial tragedies on the multinationals involved, surely taking these risks to make small short-term savings is a false economy for them? Committee chairman Donald Winter declared: "A large number of decisions were made [by BP] that were highly questionable and potentially contributed to the blowout of the Macondo well. Virtually all were made in favour of approaches which were shorter in time and lower in cost." But BP's share price had half its value wiped off over two months in the aftermath of the Deepwater spill, and the energy company was left holding a bill for around £5 billion for the resulting clean-up and damages payouts.

Why risk it?

So why do companies take these risks? Surprisingly, the answer may be found in the form of a recent advert from American energy giant Chevron, which unambiguously admits: "It took us 125 years to use the first trillion barrels of oil. We'll use the next trillion in 30. The era of easy oil is over". The uncomfortable truth is that the world's resources are running out thanks to ever-increasing demand. It is estimated that the Middle East will have the only guaranteed reserves of oil left in fifty years. Companies are scrambling to extract those remaining and, because these reserves are often the ones which are harder to access, companies like BP are having to use riskier extraction methods like deepwater drilling in order to meet demand.

The increasing scarcity of resources does not however absolve corporations of responsibility for the safety of their employees, the environment and the general public. The real tragedy of all these recent disasters is that ultimately, they were all preventable.

So how are we to go about avoiding these accidents in future, given that as resources inevitably dry up, companies appear to be less averse to risky strategies? The issue of corporate ethics and social responsibility is a murky one. Despite the millions spent on PR campaigns and the spewing out of slogans brimming with social concern, ultimately the fact is that the purpose of a corporation is to generate profit for itself and for its shareholders, and there's few legal obligations on them to do anything else. That's not to say that corporations are inherently evil, but simply that it's unrealistic to expect them to act in any other manner unless forced to do so. So the onus is shifted very much onto governments to enforce safety. A recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report on the Deepwater Spill transferred some of the culpability away from BP and instead onto industry regulation as it found that regulators were inadequately equipped to deal with deepwater drilling due to lack of expertise and funds.

Double standards

To make matters worse, while safety regulations for businesses operating in the West have undoubtedly improved beyond recognition in the last century, Western-based corporations have been known to take, by contrast, a decidedly relaxed approach towards safety in developing countries. Dole Food Inc. became the subject of a lawsuit in 2007 for allegedly poisoning its workers with the pesticide DCBP on its Central American plantations. Even disaster struck-BP came under fire again recently as lawyers acting on behalf of 73 Colombian farmers filed a lawsuit against the oil giant for allegedly causing serious damage to their land, crops and animals through negligence during the contstruction of an oil pipeline. While the lawsuits against Dole were eventually overturned, the bigger picture emerging suggests that in an increasingly globalised world, corporations are cutting corners by exploiting weaker industry regulation in developing countries.

The reaction to the Deepwater Horizon spill, however, has triggered a new wave of legislation in the US at least, strengthening safety and environmental standards. In addition, a ban on new deepwater drilling contracts in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico was put in place for several months by the Obama administration.

However, the oil industry is fighting back hard. Corporate oil lobbyists campaigned for the ban to be lifted and now are clamouring for permits to recommence drilling. This resistance shows some of the problems caused by the undue influence that big business often holds in politics; the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the federal agency responsible for ensuring the Deepwater Horizon rig was operating safely, fell well short of its own inspections policy, with up to 25 per cent of monthly inspections not being performed, and allowed the rig to operate without the safety documentation required, leading to accusations that the MMS sees its role as not to regulate but to make the permit and lease process as painless as possible for oil companies.

Too little too late

In this area often too little action is taken too late and preventative measures are only put in place after the worst of the storm has struck. Just as the Basel III Accords are coming into effect three years after the global financial meltdown began, new industrial safety legislation is being drawn up only in the aftermath of some of the worst ecological disasters the world has ever witnessed, fuelled by public outrage and vast environmental damage rather than proactivity on the part of regulators.

As the world's resources continue to dwindle, competition for them will get fiercer and the temptation for corporations to cut corners will become greater. Ultimately, the responsibility lies with governments to ensure that proper regulation is in place and enforced correctly. For each Chilean miner that survived in August, forty more will die worldwide this year on average. By focusing on the human element of the stories, the media has run the risk of drawing attention away from the conditions that created the situation.

Deepwater Horizon spill in numbers

  • 4.9 million: barrels of oil leaked since April
  • £5 billion: amount spent by BP responding to the spill
  • £16.8 billion: pre-tax profits made by BP in 2009

Industrial accidents: did you know?

  • The worst mining accident in the UK cost 439 lives in 1913
  • Mining disasters account for around 12,000 deaths each year
  • The worst recorded industrial disaster was the Chernobyl meltdown in Prypiat, Ukraine. It caused the immediate deaths of 50 people with an additional 4,000 suspected to have died of cancer related to the accident. To this day, Prypiat remains a ghost town.

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