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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

The nature of industrial disaster

Industrial hazards are threats to people and life-support systems that arise from the mass production of goods and services.3 When these threats exceed human coping capabilities or the absorptive capacities of environmental systems they give rise to industrial disasters. Industrial hazards can occur at any stage in the production process, including extraction, processing, manufacture, transportation, storage, use, and disposal. Losses generally involve the release of damaging substances (e.g. chemicals, radioactivity, genetic materials) or damaging levels of energy from industrial facilities or equipment into surrounding environments. This usually occurs in the form of explosions, fires, spills, leaks, or wastes. Releases may occur because of factors that are internal to the industrial system (e.g. engineering flaws) or they may occur because of external factors (e.g. extremes of nature). Releases may be sudden and intensive, as in a power-plant explosion, or gradual and extensive, as in the build-up of ozone-destroying chemicals in the stratosphere or the progressive leakage of improperly disposed toxic wastes.

In a narrow sense the causes of industrial hazards and disasters are malfunctions, failures, or unanticipated side-effects of technological systems. But this is a misleading oversimplification. Many other factors are involved. The calculus of industrial hazard is a blend of industrial systems, people, and environments (fig. 1.1). These combine in different ways to create a specific hazard. For example, faulty equipment, operator error, and a south-westerly air flow all helped to shape the events that occurred at Three Mile Island nuclear power station (Sills, Wolf, and Shelanski 1982; Houts, Cleary, and Hu 1988). The Challenger space shuttle disaster involved, among others, a vulnerable fluid seal, cold weather, and an impatient launch team - although the official inquiry blamed only the seal.


Fig. 1.1 Components of industrial hazards

Large-scale industrial disasters are one of the legacies of the Industrial Revolution; before 1800 they were few and far between. Historically, the effects of industrial disasters were typically confined to workplaces or to the transportation systems that shipped raw materials and finished goods. Accordingly, most public policies for disaster reduction emphasized safer industrial technologies and upgraded working conditions - at the mine face, on the foundry floor, in the machine shop and the power station, or on the ships and railroads that transported a majority of industrial products (Sax 1975; Chelius 1977; Rosner and Markowitz 1987; National Safety Council 1988; Whiteside 1990). Occasional extraordinary disasters affected larger populations that were not directly associated with the industrial production system. For example, in 1917 the explosion of a munitions ship in the harbour of Halifax, Nova Scotia, destroyed much of the surrounding city (Prince 1920). But it was not until comparatively recently that these latter kinds of industrial disasters became common. Since the 1970s there has been an increasing number of devastating events that produced significant "off-site" effects on the health and well-being of humans and other life-forms as well as on the nonliving environment. The partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor core at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, in 1979 is a good example. It is estimated that over 140,000 people evacuated an area within 15 miles of the TMI power station (Houts, Cleary, and Hu 1988). As a result of the upsurge in offsite events, the context of the industrial disaster management problem has expanded considerably. Explanations of industrial hazards and disasters have also changed.

Increasingly, broad or quasi-universal explanations of industrial hazards are now emerging. Some of these focus on specific technical developments in the evolution of modern technology. Perrow highlights the growing importance of tightly coupled systems that leave little room for error and virtually guarantee failure. Accidents thus become "normal" (Perrow 1984). Lovins has made similar arguments about the inherent vulnerability of large centralized systems such as electricity transmission grids (Lovins 1981). Lagadec suggests that we increasingly live in "metastable" contexts where potential instabilities in technological systems and human systems are camouflaged or otherwise hidden from view. As a result, when perturbations occur they grow and spread quickly, undermining apparently well-designed safeguards against disaster (Lagadec 1990).

Other analysts locate the problem of hazard predominantly in the human components of technology. For example, Headrick believes that industrial hazards are an inevitable consequence of dominant cultural conceptions of technology (Headrick 1990). He argues that technological innovation is typically viewed as a "linear" process that connects the achievement of a particular intended result with the use of a specific device. Little thought is given to the larger contexts that promote unintended side-effects, including hazards. Slovic and others suggest that limited human abilities to assess risks in complex systems are a crucial component in the creation of hazard (Slovic 1987). Johnson and Covello (1987) remind us that risk is a socially constructed concept. Douglas and Wildavsky contend that all societies pay attention to risks selectively and that decisions about which risks we choose to confront are highly social and value-laden (Douglas and Wildavsky 1982; Douglas, 1992). Moreover, some hazards are subject to a process of social amplification that raises their salience, often out of proportion to the objective risks (Kasperson et al. 1988; Renn et al. 1993). There is also a growing awareness that the impacts of industrial hazards often fall disproportionately on disadvantaged and relatively powerless groups. It is suggested that once such groups are empowered to defend their interests, hazards will be less likely to develop or to continue (Dembo et al. 1988).

Finally, Beck contends that the citizens of economically advanced states have become part of a "risk society." This is "an epoch in which the dark sides of progress increasingly come to dominate social debate," when all of us must confront "... the possibility of artificially produced self-annihilation" (Beck 1995, 2). This period is marked by the emergence of a distinction between "risks" and "threats." Beck reserves the term risks for the hazardous phenomena of early industrial societies. These, he believes, were limited, knowable, and capable of being compensated or insured against. By contrast, contemporary threats - whether nuclear, chemical, biological, or ecological are: "(1) not limitable, either socially or temporally; (2) not accountable according to the prevailing rules of causality, guilt and liability; and (3) neither compensable nor insurable" (Beck 1995, 2).

From many of these perspectives, meaningful advances in risk reduction require social change as well as the development of technical solutions. In light of the range and variety of explanations that have been advanced, it is clear that industrial hazards and disasters are highly complex phenomena subject to a multitude of contextual influences (Burton and Kates 1986). As the next section shows, they also impose heavy burdens on society.