Monday, February 11, 2008

The Price of Life: Industrial Accidents Then and Now

The refining giant British Petroleum has been in the news again lately, and not in a good way. At the firm's Texas City, Texas refinery on Jan. 14, a worker named William Gracia died when a lid blew off a water filtration vessel during a startup procedure and hit him in the head. The day before that, BP's board of directors fired its CEO, Lord Browne of Madingley, not quite three years after an explosion at the same refinery killed 15 people and injured 170 in the worst U. S. industrial accident in a decade. Although reasons are not usually given when a CEO is dismissed, one can speculate that the disaster had something to do with Lord Browne's departure—that and the $1.6 billion the firm paid out to settle some 4,000 lawsuits, and the $1 billion repair bill to get the refinery operating again. The $22 billion in profits that BP made in 2006 puts these numbers into perspective. Or does it?

What is a human life worth? The time was (and still is, unfortunately, in a few places) where a human life was a market commodity like any other. Fortunately, the human race has seen fit to abolish slavery nearly everywhere, but that doesn't mean that you can't figure out what a human life is worth in certain contexts.

Look at the BP situation from an economic point of view. I'm not saying that BP managers thought this way, but one way of looking at it is this. Okay, in 2005 something happened that ended up costing us an additional $2.6 billion. We might have been able to avoid that accident by spending more time and money on safety regulations, training, equipment, and so on. But who knows how much of that is enough? If we'd spent more than $2.6 billion extra on such programs, we would have ended up cutting into our 2006 profits of $22 billion. So how much safety is enough? And at what price?

Another way of looking at it is to ask how much BP spent on settlements per worker injured or killed: an average of about $8.6 million each, it turns out. Now much if not most of that went to lawyers: BP's lawyers, the contingency-fee lawyers that workers without other financial resources have to go to in situations like this, and miscellaneous lawyers, experts, and other highly paid professionals that tend to accumulate around disasters like flies around honey. And some of it probably went to the injured and the families of those who died. Is that what a worker's life is worth? At least in this case, it turned out to be that way for BP.

It's interesting to contrast the way these things are handled today with the way similar casualties were handled in the 1800s. The nineteenth century was an era of ambitious construction projects: bridges, dams, tunnels. Everybody knows about the Brooklyn Bridge. You may even know that its original designer, John Roebling, had his foot crushed while doing surveys for the bridge, and died of the resulting tetanus infection. His son Washington took over, but after going into an underwater high-pressure caisson during construction of the foundations, he succumbed to decompression sickness and became an invalid. His wife Emily taught herself enough engineering to serve as his chief assistant during the rest of the bridge's 13-year construction. Although many hundreds of workers were employed on the site, the project had a relatively good safety record for the time: only 27 people died, an average of about two a year.

On the other hand, the Hoosac Tunnel project, otherwise known as the "Bloody Pit", cost 193 lives to build. This 4.75-mile railroad tunnel in Western Massachusetts served as a test bed for modern construction techniques using pneumatic drills and nitroglycerine. It was completed in 1873, three years after the Brooklyn Bridge project began.

In those days, construction-worker fatalities were regarded as regrettable, but no one appears to have thought much the worse for the companies or engineers responsible if a few workers died on the job. The general attitude was that a worker taking on a job knew it was dangerous, and it was his look-out to keep alive.

Thomas Edison was (and is) one of my heroes, but in many ways Edison held some very typical 19th-century attitudes about the safety of his employees. In a new biography of Edison by Randall Stross, I read how Edison sent people far and wide in the summer of 1880 to search for bamboo that might have fibers suitable for incandescent-lamp filaments. One of the less popular members of his lab staff was named John Segredor, a hot-tempered man who had once responded to a sarcastic remark from another staff worker by going to his rooming house and getting a gun. Edison sent Segredor on an odyssey first to Georgia, then Florida, and finally to Cuba in search of different varieties of bamboo. Three days after his arrival in Cuba, Segredor died of yellow fever. In a private letter about the matter, Edison blamed Segredor for his own death, saying he was careless about drinking cold drinks in hot places "and this I doubt not caused his death." No lawsuits there, it seems.

Ideally, nobody would die in industrial accidents, or any other kind, for that matter. Considering the much larger number of people engaged in modern industry today compared to a hundred years ago, it is likely that the accident and fatality rates in modern industry are much lower than comparable rates in the 1880s. And at least in the U. S., our attitudes are much harsher nowadays toward the companies and executives who are involved in industrial accidents. True, the enforcement mechanism is largely a private-enterprise affair using the civil justice system and freelance contingency-fee lawyers, but I suppose free-market justice is better than no justice at all. But wouldn't it be nice if the lawyers ended up with nothing to do because nobody was dying of industrial accidents anymore? We should still hold out the ideal of no accidents or injuries due to technical causes as one to be striven for. But for a long time, I think, there will always be more to be done.

Sources: The latest BP accident is described in the San Francisco Examiner online edition at Lord Browne's departure and the BP financial statistics were carried in an article on the Ergoweb website, an ergonomics services company, at I also consulted Wikipedia articles on the Brooklyn Bridge and the Hoosac Tunnel. The Segredor incident is recounted on p. 110 of Stross's The Wizard of Menlo Park (New York: Crown, 2007).

1 comment:

  1. Great post! yesterday i found another great video post about Industrial Accidents. Here is the link
    Industrial Accidents