Why do industrial catastrophes happen?
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.