Organizational culture and disaster: Lessons from the Gulf and from Japan

In determining the underlying causes of workplace safety disasters, organizational culture matters. The tragic realities of that basic truth are emerging in assessments of the last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and the ongoing dangers concerning Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Deepwater Horizon oil rig

The U.S. Coast Guard has weighed in with a report on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers and caused millions of gallons of oil to pour into the Gulf. Michael Kunzelman of the Associated Press reports (via Yahoo! News, link here):

Flaws in Transocean Ltd.’s emergency training and equipment and a poor safety culture contributed to the deadly Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion that led to the Gulf oil spill, according to a Coast Guard report released Friday.

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The report doesn’t explore the root causes of the well blowout, which triggered the explosions that killed 11 workers and sent millions of gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. But the Coast Guard said numerous actions by Transocean and the rig’s crew affected their ability to prevent or limit the disaster.

Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant

Even as the struggle continues to prevent greater disaster arising out of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, questions are being raised about cozy connections between the nation’s nuclear power companies, regulatory officials, and the government. As Norimitsu Onishi and Ken Belson report for the New York Times (link here):

Investigators may take months or years to decide to what extent safety problems or weak regulation contributed to the disaster at Daiichi, the worst of its kind since Chernobyl. But as troubles at the plant and fears over radiation continue to rattle the nation, the Japanese are increasingly raising the possibility that a culture of complicity made the plant especially vulnerable to the natural disaster that struck the country on March 11.

Highlighted in the piece is the story of a Japanese-American nuclear inspector who, in 2000, expressed concerns about the safety of the plant. Japan’s nuclear safety agency revealed the identity of the inspector to company officials in apparent violation of a safety law shielding whistle blowers and allowed the company to conduct its own investigation.

How quickly we forget

Often lost in the justifiable concern over the environmental impact of these disasters is the fact that workers are put at grave risk, often involving severe injuries and fatalities. Eleven workers died at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. And in Japan, we can only begin to speculate about the harm done to the Japanese workers who have bravely worked to contain the meltdown.

In a way, it recalls public reaction to Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle. Sinclair wrote the novel to spotlight the terrible working and living conditions confronting impoverished workers in the meatpacking industry. Instead, it led to widespread alarm about the safety of the food supply, and even today many people associate the book solely with that concern.

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