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Disaster management lessons from the BP oil spill

By Nestor E. Arellano
| www.cos-mag.com

Almost a year later, safety experts provide some analysis of safety and emergency management lessons learned from the BP oil spill disaster of 2010. Safety executives take heed.

The August 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, also known as the

BP oil spill,

is considered to be the single largest accidental marine oil spill in the petroleum industry. Eleven people were killed and 17 others injured in an explosion triggered by a sea-floor oil gusher at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig operated by BP off the Gulf of Mexico.

By the time BP was able to cap the gushing pipe three months later, more than 4.9 million barrels of crude oil had spilled into the ocean threatening marine life, coastal animal habitats and local industries.

Despite its toxic detritus, the environmental disaster is a gold mine of disaster management lessons for safety professionals, according to two safety experts who spoke in separate sessions at the recently concluded

American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE)

conference in Chicago this year.

For Tom Krause, co-founder and chairman of the board of safety consultancy firm

Behavioural Science Technology Inc.,

the incident illustrates the value of effectively communicating safety concerns to senior corporate leaders.

During his presentation titled: What we have learned from the BP catastrophe, Krause proposed that safety professionals should “look at ourselves” when the CEO appears not to get the message that safety is a C-level concern.

Pamela Walaski, president of

JC Safety and Environmental Inc.,

based in Pittsburgh, said the oil spill also shines a spotlight on the need for organizations to recognize the importance of giving the public timely and reliable information about a disaster involving the company. Walaski’s talk was titled: Communicating in a crisis: Lessons from the BP Oil Spill.

“Among the early mistakes of BP was to keep the public in the dark and downplay the severity of the situation. As a result, the company’s credibility was severely eroded,” explained Walaski.

C-level issue

Safety professionals that fail to relay to company leaders the importance of safety risk having executives that are lulled into a false sense of confidence at the height of a disaster. He stressed that “safety is a CEO issue,” and yet the BP oil spill revealed that company leaders were nearly oblivious to the severity of the situation.

As a result, the BP leadership was too slow to act.

In essence, he said, the leaderships’ perception of the looming catastrophe was blinkered because they were focused on counting key metrics of what constituted a disaster rather than acting on well-honed risk assessment skills.

“For instance, a reliance on recordable injuries as the primary measure creates a blind spot. As a result, leaders have a false sense of confidence until a serious or fatal injury surprises them,” Krause said.

He likened the situation to that of a frog placed in a pot over a fire pit. “If the water is brought to a sudden boil, the frog will know that it is in danger and leap out. But if you gradually increase the temperature of the water, the frog is fooled into believing everything is fine until it is too late.”

Krause had the following suggestions on how safety professionals can boost the safety posture of their organization:

  • Educate leaders about safety. Get executive buy-in then move downwards throughout the organization.
  • Develop a system for measuring series of injuries and high disaster potentials as one category.
  • Create a process for identifying and mitigating risks and disaster precursors.
  • Integrate existing audit and observation practices.

Crisis management

Many leaders facing troubles of whatever proportion, according to Walaski of JC Safety and Environment, appear to have one thing in common. “They appear to be telling themselves that a disaster is not likely to happen to their company,” said the safety consultant.

An unfortunate offshoot of this mindset is the tendency to sugar-coat information that is released to the public, according to Walaski,who also wrote a book entitled,

Risk and Crisis Communication: Methods and Messages.

“People want to and need to know the real score especially if it will have an impact on their lives,” she said.

Another major mistake by BP, Walaski said, was in its initial choice for a spokesperson during the disaster. Who can forget the image on TV of

BP executive Tony Hayward

saying “I’d like my life back” while the oil swell advanced towards the coastline.

Walaski has the following tips on how to relay bad news to the public:

  • Don’t be afraid to give your audience the worse case scenario.
  • Choose the right spokesperson. Your voice during a disaster should be a person who not only can convey your company’s sincerity, but also project empathy especially with those affected by the disaster.
  • Provide truthful and accurate information. Provide timely and regular updates of the situation.
  • Tell people what your company is doing. A good move by BP was to inform the public of its various options in dealing with the oil leak and provide regular status reports.
  • Take responsibility. Resist the urge to pass the buck.

Take the example of the 2002 tainted Tylenol scandal, said Walaski.

When seven people died after swallowing tampered Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide, Johnson & Johnson immediately announced that it was recalling batches of the popular medicine. Within 48 hours more than 31 million bottles of Tylenol were pulled from the shelves.

Many in the pharmaceutical industry thought the move would be the end of Tylenol. But the public proved them wrong, said Walaski.

“The recall showed that Johnson & Johnson was more concerned with public safety than the bottom line,” she said. 

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Nestor E. Arellano is a freelance writer based in Toronto. You may contact him at

writerrites@yahoo.ca.

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