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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 evolution of responses

The fact that most communities survive industrial disasters testifies to the resilience of people and the effectiveness of their responses to catastrophe. Indeed, over the long term, humans have demonstrated impressive abilities to cope with most industrial disasters, first by ameliorating their effects and then by finding effective ways to avoid, prevent, or control them by precautionary actions. Boiler explosions provide a good illustration. At one time in the early industrialization of Great Britain and the United States, boiler explosions were perhaps the most common industrial disaster (Hamilton 1973). They often led to catastrophic fires on board ships and trains as well as in factories, apartment buildings, and other places.7 Now the problem of boiler explosions is much reduced as a consequence of improvements in industrial design, construction standards, worker safety, occupational health, and other factors. Similar improvements have reduced the hazard of fires caused by faulty electrical equipment and the number of collapses of high-rise buildings. Another more recent example has come to light in the wake of hurricane Andrew, the most disastrous storm ever to have affected the United States. Despite Andrew's size, intensity, and general destructiveness on land, it destroyed or damaged very few offshore oil and gas platforms. This positive outcome continues a long-term trend of improvement in platform survivability that has come about because of advances in knowledge about marine environments, design standards, building materials and construction practices, platform siting and installation procedures, and improved operation and maintenance actions (New York Times, 21 October 1992).

As these examples show, though they may be long lived (Iijima 1979; Glacken 1973), industrial hazards are neither permanent nor unchanging. The mix of hazard is always in flux. New hazards arise as a consequence of technological innovations, while existing hazards are reduced or eliminated by effective human responses. Through time, whole classes of hazard may be added to or dropped from the public agenda. Kirk Smith, a researcher at the East-West Center in Hawaii, argues that this process of change might be labelled "risk transition" and that it is comparable in importance to the socalled "demographic transition" that accompanied rapid economic development in many countries during the past century (Smith 1988).

The process of developing effective responses may require many decades or longer to reach completion. The recent history of hazardous industry regulation in Britain makes this point (Pests 1988; Myers and Read 1992). After World War II, demand for the products of refineries and chemical plants increased sharply throughout the world. This led to major changes in those industries, including new production processes (e.g. bulk liquefaction of gases), larger plants, bigger inventories, and expanded throughput of products. These changes were accompanied by an upsurge in explosions and fires, particularly during the 1950s and 1960s. But it was not until the early 1970s that public policy makers in the United Kingdom began to take action in response. And it took two more decades before comprehensive programmes of hazard management were put in place. In other words, in the United Kingdom the entire sequence, from the industrial innovations that triggered the hazards to the development of effective responses, stretched across four decades.

The history of coalmine disasters in the United States offers an even more salutary lesson. Numbers of mine disasters and disaster deaths rose throughout the nineteenth century to peak in the first decade of the twentieth. Thereafter they did not undergo a major decline until the 1930s. However, even as late as the 1960s, coalmine death rates were much higher in the United States than in coalmining countries of Europe (Curran 1993). Death rates were affected by changes in a wide range of factors including, among others, coal supplies and demand, mine size, levels of mechanization, coalfield labour demographics, unionization, worker education and training, laws and regulations, and mine safety programmes. Some of these changes worked toward reducing mine disasters and deaths, while others worked against that outcome.

Of course, the response process might be induced to unfold faster. For example, in developing countries it is theoretically possible to adopt production systems and related hazard controls at the same time by taking advantage of experience already acquired in developed countries. But, more typically, transfers of technology to developing countries often fail to modify the borrowed systems to take account of socio-cultural circumstances in the receiving country. As a result, the potential for further disasters grows.

What has just been described might be labelled a social learning model of industrial hazard management. It assumes that few hazards are insurmountable in the long run. What is required is a period of time to gain experience of the hazard, scientific expertise to investigate it, and a public commitment to put the findings into practice. Often, the process begins with reactive strategies that are intended to reduce the impacts of disasters and works toward creating anticipatory strategies that are intended to avoid the build-up of hazard. Gradually, a new hazard becomes familiar - by dint of repeated experience - and hazards managers are able to acquire a fund of knowledge about the utility of alternative coping mechanisms. In time, the match between hazard and response becomes closer and losses begin to decline. At this stage, what had once been a challenging new hazard would no longer constitute much of a threat.

Certainly, social learning of the type just noted plausibly explains the changing salience of boiler disasters, offshore platform failures and many other phenomena (Sheehan and Wedeen 1993). But such learning requires that hazards and disasters occur with sufficient frequency to provide a base of experience and opportunities for testing alternative responses. How, then, can we learn to cope with unprecedented events, sometimes of vast proportions? And what if these events signal that society is already pressing against the limits of the global environment's capacity to absorb them? The next section takes up this theme.