Personal Injury

Is lack of corporate safety amounting to a ‘terror’ all its own?

Gavel Scales of Justice American flag square Is lack of corporate safety amounting to a terror all its own?If lawmaking proponents of deregulation have their way, Americans won’t have to worry about being harmed by random foreign terrorists so much as they will by the danger and catastrophe presented by many of our own factories, oil rigs, mines, and other places of work.

That may sound like an exaggeration, a complete overreach. But is it?

Think of all the time and resources law enforcement and intelligence devoted to catching the two Boston bombers who detonated bombs near the finish line of the marathon. Think about all the media attention lavished on that manhunt.

All that time, money, and attention spent on the Boston bombing were justified. But now think about the West Fertilizer plant in West, Texas. Investigators found the company had been stockpiling 1,350 times the legal undeclared limit of highly explosive ammonium nitrate. That enormous stash created a deadly blast that killed 15 people, injured more than 160, and decimated half the town of 2,800 people. The plant didn’t even have a sprinkler system, fire alarm, or the legally required blast resistant walls.

In response to the tragedy, which could have been prevented by following the rules, West Fertilizer owner Donald Adair said his sympathy goes out to all the people who were killed and injured in the blast.

“The selfless sacrifice of first responders who died trying to protect all of us is something I will never get over,” Mr. Adair wrote, alluding to the firefighters who lost their lives after rushing in to put out a fire that broke out in his powder keg of a factory.

“I was devastated to learn that we lost one of our employees in the explosion,” Mr. Adair went on. “He bravely responded to the fire at the facility as a volunteer firefighter. I will never forget his bravery and his sacrifice, or that of his colleagues who rushed to the trouble.”

Absent from Mr. Adair’s statement is an apology for the blast or any expression of culpability on his part for accumulating such a dangerous and unstable stockpile of explosives. Nor did his company report them to the Department of Homeland Security as is required by federal law when the stash goes over 400 pounds.

But the West Fertilizer blast is just one example in many of what can happen, and often does, when companies ignore safety and shirk responsibility, usually in pursuit of higher profits. And when something finally goes wrong, it’s the workers, the environment, and public sector that ultimately pay the most, never the guys who made the decisions that created the problem.

A federal investigation and report of BP’s Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 workers and spilled more than 200 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, found that “The loss of life at the Macondo site on April 20, 2010, and the subsequent pollution of the Gulf of Mexico through the summer of 2010 were the result of poor risk management, last-minute changes to plans, failure to observe and respond to critical indicators, inadequate well control response and insufficient emergency bridge response training by companies and individuals responsible for drilling at the Macondo well and for the operation of the Deepwater Horizon.”

Now, as BP complains in court about having to pay out too much in damages over its oil spill, scientists have discovered massive die-offs of sea life in the Gulf, serious disruptions in the food chain, and sick and deformed fish and shellfish across miles of Gulf coast in four states. All of this puts the future of the Gulf in jeopardy, and along with it, the future of Gulf seafood, fishing, tourism, and all other parts of the economy. BP, however, continues to post higher than expected profits and sits on a vast multi-billion-dollar fortune in cash reserves.

Before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, there was BP’s Texas City refinery explosion, which killed 15 workers and injured nearly 200 others on March 23, 2005.

Investigations of that disaster also found multiple technical and organizational failures at the refinery and within BP’s corporate ranks were to blame. Corporate cost-cutting, failure to invest in improvements to plant infrastructure, lack of programs to prevent major accidents, and numerous other serious failures demonstrated a systemic lack of safety within BP’s refinery and its corporate culture alike.

Just prior to BP’s Deepwater Horizon explosion, the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia exploded, killing 29 miners. In that case, too, investigations revealed that the mine had been cited 458 times for safety violations, with many of them issued for “willful or gross negligence.”

Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy, which owned the Upper Big Branch mine, was an outspoken foe of safety, government regulations, and worker unions. He often called some congressional leaders “greeniacs” and “crazy” for supporting environmental protections. Instead of investing profits in mine safety improvements and worker protections, Blankenship spent his money and power to manipulating political campaigns to secure outcomes favorable to his company’s interests. And although Blankenship, who was the coal industry’s highest paid executive, will never spend a day in prison for his disastrous anti-worker, anti-safety, and anti-environment policies, the superintendent of Upper Big Branch mine who was tasked with executing those policies will.

Massey Energy offered Superintendent Gary May up as a scapegoat for the bad policies its executives formulated. Mr. May was sentenced to two years in prison and a $20,000 fine. Meanwhile, it’s business as usual in the mines.

West Fertilizer, BP, and Massey Energy are just a few of the more high-profile examples of disasters caused by corporate leadership’s refusal to abide by the rules. As Washington Post contributor Mike Elk put it, “In 2011, 4,609 Americans were killed in workplace accidents while only 17 Americans died at the hands of terrorists — about the same number as were crushed to death by their televisions or furniture.”

We spend trillions of dollars in taxpayer money fighting terrorists abroad while slashing the budgets of regulatory agencies and promoting deregulation whose only purpose is to boost profit. As a result, the threat from inside our own borders grows and showing up for work has become one of our greatest dangers.


New York Times
Washington Post