Industrial Safety

Safety first, production second

Paul Studebaker, CMRP, editorial director, says Dow knows what's wrong with BP.

By Paul Studebaker, CMRP, editorial director

On Nov. 8, while President Obama was cutting business deals in Mumbai, hundreds of survivors of the December 1984 gas disaster in Bhopal were demonstrating in New Delhi, demanding positive action by the U.S. president in the case of the world’s worst industrial disaster caused by a U.S. corporation. reports that organizers demanded Obama take action against Dow Chemical and Union Carbide for their crimes in Bhopal.

On the night of Dec. 2, 1984, 40 tonnes of methyl iscocyanate stored at a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide was contaminated with water and other impurities, and a mixture of deadly gases escaped from the factory killing several thousand people and injuring at least 500,000 others. Dow Chemical purchased Union Carbide in 2001.

“Because of these two American corporations, today over a hundred thousand people are chronically ill and hundreds are dying untimely deaths in Bhopal,” said Rashida Bee, president of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh. “Hundreds of babies are being born with horrific malformations, and their parents suffer damages to the liver, kidney and lungs and brain.”

Maybe it’s the fact that 26 years have passed since the Bhopal disaster, or maybe it’s because the bodies didn’t wash up on the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico, but while Obama was offering no public comments to the Indian demonstrators, his administration was saying a lot about BP’s role in the Gulf oil spill.

Dow has steadily driven down incidents despite challenging acquisitions such as Union Carbide.

– Paul Studebaker, CMRP, editorial director

“We certainly found no evidence that anyone had scrimped on safety, for example, to save money,” said William Reilly, co-chairman of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, to Bloomberg reporters during the commission’s Nov. 9 meeting in Washington. “What we have really heard today is a story of what appears to be several very human decisions made by competent professionals who missed signals.”

Panel Chief Counsel Fred Bartlit, who presented the preliminary findings, said, “We have not seen a single instance where a human being made a conscious decision to favor dollars to safety.”

Anyone familiar with industrial accidents could have told Bartlit and Reilly that’s the way they usually happen. The problem isn’t that cost or production or convenience or some other factor is prioritized over safety, it’s simply that safety isn’t adequately prioritized.

Representative Edward Markey hit the nail on the head when he said BP’s culture “favors risk-taking and cutting corners above other concerns,” and failures such as the Gulf blowout “result without direct decisions being made or tradeoffs being considered.”

As this year’s winner of the National Safety Council’s Robert W. Campbell Award for integration of environmental, health and safety (EHS) management within business operations, Dow Chemical knows how to prevent incidents. In 2008, Dow’s reportable injury and illness rate was about one-tenth of the chemical industry’s average. Within one year of its acquisition of the chemical business of Rohm and Haas in 2001, Dow was able to lower its injury and illness rate by 40% and at the same time set a 113-year record for Dow. It also has steadily driven down its loss-of-containment incidents despite growth and challenging acquisitions such as Union Carbide.

“Dow's comprehensive commitment to safety excellence includes all of the critical elements, such as management leadership and employee engagement, an integrated safety management system, a risk reduction mindset and careful measurement,” said National Safety Council President and CEO Janet Froetscher at the award ceremony Oct. 4 in San Diego. “This commitment is further demonstrated by the organization's Drive to Zero safety initiative, which represents an inclusive strategy with detailed execution in all phases of its operations in this move toward zero injuries. Dow seeks to eliminate unplanned events involving personal injury, process safety or the environment. It has everything in place to achieve such a lofty goal.”

Andrew Liveris, Dow chairman and CEO, put it succinctly: “We operate a 'safety first, production second' mindset at Dow,” he said, “and our Drive to Zero global safety goals will always come first.”

The company explains it all at Maybe now BP will take a look.