What is Workplace Safety Worth?

By Frank Kenna

What was it like –there –  when the BP oil rig exploded?  An in-depth report in the May 28 The Wall Street Journal  told it like it was.  Here’s an except of what can happen when safety preparedness goes wrong:

Seconds later, the methane ignited, possibly triggered by the revving engine. That set off an explosion that blew away critical sections of the Deepwater Horizon, sheared off at least one engine, set large parts of the rig on fire and allowed oil to begin spewing into the sea.

Mr. Curtis and Mr. Anderson almost certainly were killed instantly, according to other workers. So was veteran driller Dewey Revette.  Six men working nearby also died.

Dale Burkeen, a 37-year-old Mississippian who operated the rig’s tall starboard crane, had been trying to get out of harm’s way when the blast hit. It blew him off a catwalk, other workers say, and he fell more than 50 feet to the deck, where he died.

A series of detonations followed. The motor room was wrecked. Steel doors were blown off their hinges. The wheel on one door flew off and struck a worker. Crew members were hurled across rooms, leaving many with broken bones, gashes and serious burns.

When he heard the first explosion, tool pusher Wyman Wheeler was in his bunk. He got up to investigate. The second blast blew the door off his quarters, breaking his shoulder and right leg in five places, according to family members. Other workers scooped him up and carried him toward the lifeboat deck on a stretcher.

The explosions knocked gantry-crane operator Mr. Sandell out of his seat and across the cab. As he fled down a spiral staircase to the deck, another explosion sent him into the air. He fell more than 10 feet, then got up to run. “Around me all over the deck, I couldn’t see nothing but fire,” he said in an interview. “There was no smoke, only flames.” He ran for the lifeboat deck.

There’s more, but you get the idea.  What would it have been worth to prevent all this from happening?  What is safety worth? That’s a calculation that every manager has to make on an ongoing basis when faced with the cost of investing in safety training and workplace safety programs. In this case, the answer is billions of dollars.

(Photo: Michael DeMocker/The Times-Picayune)

Sharon Toelle
June 2, 2010

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