What should companies be doing to prevent disasters such as the ongoing catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, with its tragic loss of life and environmental devastation? Granted, some disasters are just ‘Black Swans’ (see Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s writings on this topic) and can’t be predicted. But company safety procedures can go a long way toward mitigating the risks of accidents and their potential effects.

Having served as a company safety officer and having written about industrial safety some years ago, I was very interested in the experience published today by Robert X. Cringely on his I, Cringely blog — see “Doing the Right Thing.”

Cringely republishes a comment from one of his readers, a Monsanto engineer, who recounts how Monsanto learned from the calamitous April 16, 1947, industrial accident at Texas City harbor. That accident was caused by a fire on a ship, not by Monsanto. However, the resulting explosion destroyed Monsanto’s plant, along with other facilities at the port and thousands of homes. Almost 600 people were killed. (See the Wikipedia article on the Texas City Disaster and the series of photos at the Portal to Texas History.) Here’s an aerial view of the Monsanto plant and the port after the accident:

Monsanto plant and Texas City port after 1947 disaster

As a result of Texas City, Monsanto developed a stronger culture of safety, says Cringely’s reader:

They developed technology to better control chemical process. They developed standards to built safer facilities. They didn’t do this alone. They worked closely with other chemical companies. The whole industry invested in best practices and shared what they learned. When I started my job [in the 1970s] I was given a set of “standards” consisting of 3 binders, each 6 inches thick — serious reading.

Union Carbide’s terrible accident in Bhobal, India, in 1984 also became a crucial lesson for industry players. Soon after Bhopal, Monsanto officials had “reverse-engineered” the disaster and reiterated company policy, emphasizing that “all plants are to be built to USA or local country safety standards, whichever is better.”

Further studies within Monsanto after Bhopal had a profound effect on the company’s business:

The result of the study was sweeping changes in how much material was stored in each facility. Many processes and lines of business were deemed too risky to continue and were shut down. Monsanto walked away from tens of millions in business to reduce risk and improve safety.

Monsanto also instituted new programs to train and equip local first-responders where its plants are and to reduce emissions “far exceeding EPA rules.”

These comments emphasize the value of adopting the stance of a “learning organization.” What kinds of company policies and practices can go the furthest in preventing accidents, loss of life, and environmental damage — and in minimizing the effects when accidents do occur?

AB — 17 June 2010

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