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History repeats itself

Flixborough, Seveso, Bhopal, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Piper Alpha, Deepwater Horizon, Courrières, Monongah, Benxi, Aberfan, Kingston, Heilongjiang, Copiapó, San Bruno

How many of these do you recognize? And what do they have in common?

For the ones you recognized, what were the thoughts that went through your head when you read them? Probably sympathy for the affected people, and bitter anger towards the executives who ran the companies that caused these catastrophes.

What is really the root cause? Is it corporate greed? In a few instances this may be true, but generally, it is not. Most people at most companies try to do the right thing. So is it

  • Lack of imagination of what can go wrong?
  • Lack of will to spend the time and money to reduce the likelihood to near zero?
  • Lack of human knowledge to understand the science?
  • Lack of ability (human error)?

The fact is that all of these are causes of harm to people and the environment. Lack of imagination? After an incident, it becomes clear what went wrong, but before the incident, we may not anticipate it – or we greatly underestimate the likelihood. Lack of will? Who decides how much is an appropriate amount to spend? Lack of human knowledge? There will always be limits to human knowledge. Lack of ability? We are human and there will always be lapses in attention and lapses in judgment.

Now think about a different scenario – an individual causes a major fire in Southern California that burns hundreds of homes and kills a firefighter. The self-employed individual was clearing weeds and the weed trimmer caused a spark and started the fire. He has no water nearby to put it out before it gets out of control. Do you feel bitter anger towards him? I know people who would not blame this individual because they feel that he was a victim of society. He just needed to make a living, and he did not have the resources of a large company. It seems that it easier to blame a big corporation for not having done enough to prevent an incident than it is to blame an individual.

Now look at your own contribution to harm to people and the environment. You do contribute to it, don’t you? Your first reaction was probably, “I don’t hurt anyone.” Unless you are dead, you are contributing to use of the earth’s resources and creation of pollution. I am not advocating for us to all kill ourselves, but to realize that we as individuals make trade-offs too.

So, how can we help ourselves as well as companies to properly manage operational risks? First we have to realize that while we can reduce the risk and possibly reduce the severity of the consequences, it is impossible to guarantee that there will never be another industrial catastrophe. We simply do not have the knowledge, resources, and ability to prevent every harmful event. Instead, we should shift the conversation to investing in good science, good resource prioritization, and good design so that we achieve as much reduction in risk as is reasonably practicable.

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