July 6 has a rather dubious place in the history of workplace and community safety, corporate responsibility and government oversight.

Lac Mégantic, July 6, 2013

Five years ago today, an unmanned train carrying 72 tank-cars of highly combustible crude oil barreled down a hill at 65 mph, three times the normal speed, and careened off the track in the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, disgorging six million liters of highly combustible petroleum crude. Within moments the oil exploded. The resulting inferno obliterated most of the downtown and incinerated 47 persons.

The Canadian government prosecuted the train’s engineer and sole crew member for not setting enough hand brakes, as well as two other rail employees, on 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death — crimes that carried a life sentence.  Happily, the jury found the workers innocent after a government report and trial testimony that revealed serious weakenesses in the railroad’s safety culture, single operator procedures, safety procedures, maintenance, worker training as well as problems with government oversight. One attorney called it a “perfect storm” of substandard company practices.

As I wrote before, the Lac Megantic disaster was the story not of careless, lazy workers but of a railroad carrying hazardous cargo, supported by an extremely complicated, safety sensitive procedures, that cut corners on safety and maintenance wherever it could, had a non-existent training program and a government oversight agency that failed in its mission to protect workers and the public.”

In the aftermath of the disaster, criminal charges were dropped against the US-based Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, although the now bankrupt company was fined $1 million for polluting a nearby river. In Canada, single operator trains have been forbidden, but a similar rule in the United States has been put on the back burner and other rail safety regulations are currently threatened by the Trump administration.

More Confined Space posts on Lac-Mégantic here.

Piper Alpha, July 6, 1988

The Piper Alpha Memorial at Hazlehead Park in Aberdeen, Scotland.

And on July 6, 1988, 30 years ago today, a gas explosion ripped through the Piper Alpha drilling platform 120 miles out to sea from Aberdeen, Scotland, killing 167 of the of the 228 men aboard.

No attempt was made to use loudspeakers or order an evacuation. The emergency procedures instructed staff to make their way to lifeboat stations, but the fire prevented them from doing so. Instead, many of the men obeyed orders from on high and moved to an area beneath the helicopter deck to await further instructions, which never came. Nor did the helicopters, with wind, fire and dense black smoke preventing the aircraft from landing anywhere near the rig.

Instead of shutting off the supply of fuel for the fire, two nearby drilling platforms continued to pump gas and oil into Piper Alpha because their crews did not believe they had the authority to shut off production, even though they could see that Piper Alpha was being consumed by flames.

Labor MP Lewis Macdonald recalled that “prior to the Piper Alpha disaster, there was a Wild West culture offshore. Producing more oil more quickly seemed to be all that mattered, macho behaviour was the order of the day, health and safety concerns were suppressed and trade unions struggled to win recognition.”  A report by Lord Cullen into the tragic incident led to a radical overhaul of health and safety policy in the offshore industry, although neither the company — American-owned Occidental Petroleum — nor its directors were prosecuted. And today, 30 years later, British unions fear that business pressures are again threatening the safety of North Sea oil and gas employees.

What Did These Disasters Have In Common?

Both of these disasters had weak corporate culture, failed safety systems, and poor government oversight in common.

The concept of “safety culture” often gets a bad rap because it is misinterpreted to mean ensuring that workers adopt the mind-set to “be careful.” Actually, safety culture is not about how workers behave or their individual attitudes and values. Safety culture is about collective practices of an organization that depend on safety structures and systems that are determined by management.

And the management of both of these companies failed miserably, along with the government oversight that was supposed to ensure safe workplaces and communities. The legal system also failed in both cases. Neither of the responsible companies or their directors were ever held responsible.


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