Letter To The Editor: Intentional Ignorance Will Lead To Another Bhopal

Dear Mr. Rosenzweig,

I have read your editorial on Bhopal, as well as Professor Kletz's article, in the recent edition of Chemical Processing.

I respectfully ask: Have you both missed the most important tangible lesson of Bhopal?

You assert that companies still blunder into serious accidents because they don't remember previous accidents.

But that statement naively ignores the reality of corporate chemical companies. They do not want to remember previous accidents. They don't want shareholders to think about them. They certainly don't want to remind governments of them. And they most definitely do not want to discuss them in front of injured parties.

The knights of the modern corporation -- lawyers, accountants and managers who keep earnings as high as possible -- maintain intentional ignorance. Their only yardstick is the current financial condition, and so human costs are ignored, and therefore human lessons are impossible. They are paid to create tactics for avoidance, rather than strategies for betterment. They seek to reduce short-term risk, rather than pursue long-term reward.

If the corporation were to really pay attention to its accident -- to discover the true extent of the damage, to determine faults in design, process and management -- that would be an admission of responsibility. And no publicly traded corporation will ever admit responsibility for anything of major negative impact. If you do not believe that, please read an annual report of a public corporation which lost money in the previous year -- any of them. You will read phrases like "the climate for our products...," or "targeted improvements in capital expenditures...," or other empty analysis. Never does it say, "we made a big mistake," even when they obviously did. That would spook investors, alert government, and provide cause for grievance by those injured.

I believe, however, that both you and Prof. Kletz genuinely wish to reduce the occurrence of chemical accidents in corporate facilities. Therefore, as the bedrock for a corporate policy of extensive accident analysis, should you not be calling simply for responsibility? Because without a corporate culture of responsibility, no one will want to see accidents as lessons. You will have wasted your Editor's pulpit, and Prof. Kletz will be read and promptly ignored.

Yes, there is a missed lesson in Bhopal.

That lesson is: Take Responsibility For Your Actions. Once that is accepted, the recommendations of Prof. Kletz are possible; without it, nothing will change -- not now, not in 25 years from now.

A corporation is not a human being, even though it is treated legally as a person. It cannot possess empathy, personal connections, or moral responsibility. Your publication would do the world a favor -- and, in the long run, do chemical corporations a favor, although they would not admit it -- by calling on the men and women who run them to be fully human. That is, to put the well-being of our societies on an equal footing with the need for corporate profit. And that would require those men and women to accept responsibility, and not devise legal, financial and cultural ways to avoid it.

Although your editorial and the article both advocate ways to be a better engineer, you do not mention the precursor to that: the need to be a better human being.

[The] article [ A Cloud Still Hangs Over Bhopal] by Suketu Mehta, an Indian-American, which was published recently in the New York Times. By using specifics from Bhopal, she makes the above point much clearer than I have.

Name withheld by request
Connecticut

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  • In response to the Letter To The Editor above regarding his article Bhopal Leaves a Lasting Legacy, which appeared in the December 2009 issue of Chemical Processing, Trevor A. Kletz offered this response:

    I do not agree.  Of course, there are some companies which behave in the way you describe, perhaps more in the U.S. than in the UK.   But in the chemical and oil industries the directors and senior managers want to avoid accidents and try to do so, but their methods are often ineffective and unsystematic.  I have attached the file of Chapter 38 of the 5th edition of my book, What Went Wrong?  Far from being secretive, many companies publish details of their accidents and near misses (really near accidents) in journals and at conferences an/or informally share information with other companies.  There are 600 pages of shared information in the book mentioned and in the books listed in the Appendices.

    Best wishes,
    Trevor A. Kletz

    Reply

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