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close this bookThe Long Road to Recovery: Community Responses to Industrial Disaster (UNU, 1996, 307 pages)
close this folder1 Improving community responses to industrial disasters
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentThe nature of industrial disaster
View the documentIndustrial disaster burdens
View the documentThe evolution of responses
View the documentRoutine disasters
View the documentSurprises
View the documentCoping with surprise
View the documentReducing the impact of industrial disaster surprises: The range of choice
View the documentRecovering from surprise
View the documentConclusions
View the documentNotes
View the documentReferences

Routine disasters

So-called "man-made catastrophes" occur with considerable frequency throughout the world every year (fig. 1.2). In 1990 the Swiss Reinsurance Company recorded 191. These included 126 transportation accidents, 35 large explosions and fires, 8 mine disasters, 6 building collapses and 16 miscellaneous others (Marbacher 1991). About 25 of these disasters took place in exclusively industrial facilities, mainly chemical plants and power stations. The three most costly were petrochemicals explosions in Thailand (54 deaths), India (30 deaths; $28 million damage) and the United States (17 deaths; $220 million damage).

Fig. 1.2 Global trends in industrial accidents

What is striking about the Swiss data is the unexceptional and repetitive nature of the events that they record. Dozens of the entries refer to aircraft and ships that went down during bad weather. Scores more are about buses, cars, and trains that collided or ran out of control. There are multiple cases of gas explosions in mines and factory fires. Although there might be only one such event in any country in a given year, these are hardly unprecedented disasters: they occur relatively often somewhere throughout the globe; their causes and characteristics are well known to engineers and safety managers; and they can be reduced by applying more or less reliable countermeasures. In short, they are "routine disasters". And because they dominate the global catalogue of losses, most of the global effort to reduce industrial hazards is, understandably, directed at them.8 Moreover, that effort may be paying off. According to Resources for the Future, the global total of industrial accidents, which peaked in the late 1970s, is now decreasing9 (fig. 1.2). Additional data for the United States indicate that this downward trend has taken place while levels of production have been rising (fig. 1.3). In other words, despite a growing potential for technological disasters (including industrial accidents), fewer of them seem to be occurring.