Cover Image
close this bookThe Long Road to Recovery: Community Responses to Industrial Disasters (UNU, 1996, 307 p.)
close this folder4 Seveso: A paradoxical classic disaster
close this folderThe lessons of Seveso
View the documentA model for managing uncertainty
View the documentModelling the Seveso disaster
View the documentModelling the Seveso Directive
View the documentModelling the Karin B incident
View the documentA moral paradox
View the documentA scientific paradox
View the documentIndustrial accidents, industrial society, and recovery

A moral paradox

Health and safety have recently joined goodness, truth and justice among the pantheon of Western culture's root ideals. Moreover, better health and safety have become prominent public goals, precisely because there seem to be real possibilities for achieving them. Unfortunately, none of these ideals is unambiguous: all are characterized by internal contradictions that may generate either fruitful or destructive outcomes.

In the debates on risks in the 1970s, it gradually emerged that "safe" does not mean zero-risk. Just as an empirical proposition may be accepted as true and later proven false (e.g. the Ptolemaic system of the world), or an action apparently good later becomes judged to be bad, similarly an installation accepted as safe may later explode. But the reverse does not hold: if there is an explosion, it is not a simple refutation of the judgement "safe." This is an example of the principle that allows people to continue believing that flying in airplanes is "safe," even though there are occasional crashes.

These and similar contradictions associated with the concept of safety are managed pragmatically by a variety of devices. One of these is linguistic interpretation. "Safe" can mean that risk is variously "negligible," "acceptable," "tolerable," "in accordance with best (or even standard) practice," or "unavoidable." Many of these interpretations are equivalent to the legal meaning of "non-culpable" risks. The pragmatic interpretation that is invoked will depend on circumstances.

In spite of the fact that many experts and critics are aware of the dialectical character of safety, most public discussions reflect the belief that an objective condition of safety is obtainable with just a little more application and honest effort. When such expectations are disappointed, critics seek explanations in simplistic theories that usually involve misguided or malevolent parties. Academics are just as prone to this behaviour as others. An important recent example was the use of "cultural theory" by certain social scientists to explain why Americans apparently considered that environmental safety had declined during the 1970s despite considerable progress in pollution control. This explanation was based on a fourfold model of social psychological ideal types of people, in relation to their social groups. For example, environmentalists of all sorts were labelled "sectarians" and were said to possess a romantic cosmology that derived from the psychological contradictions of supposedly closed and egalitarian millenarian groups (Douglas and Wildavsky 1982). In our terms, Douglas and Wildavsky had become partially aware of the contradictions in the ideal of safety, and realized that it is not reducible to numbers. Yet they could not move on to accommodate the contradictions by means of practical measures for realizing safety in the face of real hazards (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1985).

The Seveso Directive provides an important and relevant example of the contradictory character of safety. Article 8 of the Directive is based on the assumption that openness on the part of firms and authorities is good for safety. Clearly, policies of concealment can be very bad for safety. But it is questionable that perfect openness leads to perfect safety. Let us consider what might have happened if the Seveso Directive had been in place in 1976; this is an imaginary, counterfactual case, which cannot be used for the logical proof of a thesis but which can be a useful heuristic device.

The Directive as a whole demands certain sorts of institutional behaviour, in return for which it provides a certification of quality of performance. In simple terms, if an installation meets the Directive's criteria it is deemed "safe." Suppose, now, that the Seveso regulations had been in force in July 1976. Then the ICMESA factory would have previously submitted its safety report and we suppose, further, that there would have been no objections to it. The local population and the authorities would have been provided with some information about the chemical processes and their hazards. Presumably, knowledge of the earlier accidents involving TCP would have been in the public domain. Also, there would have been some emergency procedures in place. Now, supposing that, in spite of all the available information, the explosion had still happened, what would have ensued? First, it is likely that there would not have been a delay of 10 days before dioxin was publicly identified, nor another 10 days lost before there was any clarity about what to do. Would it have helped the community response, for this information to have been known instantly?

There would doubtless have been a more speedy evacuation and, therefore, probably less exposure of the affected human population. But would there have been less trauma (Conti 1977; Edelstein 1988) resulting from the sight of dead and dying animals and from the evacuation, or less dread from the unknown consequences of the invisible poison, or less of a stigma associated with Seveso and its population and products (see Chronology, July 1977)? Probably not.

However, as we have remarked, it was the relatively successful recovery from the accident that enabled Seveso to become an uncomplicated symbol of successful response to industrial disasters. The contrast with Bhopal and Chernobyl is striking. Of course, there was an early period characterized by the recriminations and accusations of incompetence and cover-up that commonly afflict such victim communities. This aggravation reached its height about six months after the Seveso gas release, when little remedial work was under way and the regional government proposed to install an incinerator in the district. Since then there have been periods of lesser and greater tension, mainly associated with the use by others of Seveso as a symbol; but suspicions about the behaviour of the company and the authorities seem never to go away.

In the context of such heightened tensions, Seveso became a microcosm where all the existing conflicts within society (political, institutional, religious, industrial) were reflected. However, within a relatively short time such conflicts abated and the recovery of the community proceeded. For, in Seveso, blame was never at issue: the responsible party was known from the outset and soon offered reparation. Moreover, the eventual disappearance of the offending factory itself and the physical exportation of the toxic substances and polluted soil enabled the community to feel cleansed. The resolution of the emotional after-effects of the trauma, so necessary for the recovery of a community, was facilitated by these favourable circumstances.

All these achievements, which made Seveso a symbolic example of recovery from industrial disaster, depended on the construction of a working relationship between the community, the government agencies, and the firm. This was accomplished through open and sometimes bitter struggle among the various parties, but the common interest in a reasonable outcome was never in question. The victims knew that they would receive assistance. Had there been uncertainty and strife about the source, amount, and timing of compensation, the communities would not have been able to pull themselves together as they did within a year and a half, once the threat of malformed babies receded and evacuees were returned to their homes. Instead, we can imagine a permanent state of mistrust between the different governmental agencies and companies and, indeed, within the communities themselves, where the processes of recovery would have been seriously inhibited. Histories of recovery from other disasters, both natural and man-made, show how important are these factors in the political and moral spheres (Barton 1969; Erikson 1976; Couch and Kroll-Smith 1991).

Now we must ask, if a firm had already been in compliance with safety regulations of the kind later required by the Seveso Directive, would its response have been different? Suppose that a firm's legal advice was that its prior compliance with all regulations decreased its responsibility for the accident and hence its liability for compensation. It is a commonplace of the theory of regulation that the submission of firms to the financial costs of external regulation is compensated by the legal protection they receive for compliance.

All we need to imagine is a case where a firm's top management would have decided against total acquiescence in the picture of the disaster and its aftermath as presented by the local community and authorities. That would have been enough to slow down the reparations. But it was the unprecedented speed of compensation offers, along with acceptance of blame and contribution to rehabilitation, that made all the difference to the recovery of Seveso. Otherwise, there could have been the protracted litigation that occurs in so many such cases and which causes psychological and moral harm, ultimately inhibiting the healing processes of recovery.

Thus, we encounter a moral paradox illuminated by Seveso: more effective prior safety regulation could conceivably have prevented the achievement of the best path to the subsequent recovery of a community. Once an accident has occurred, the cleansing of resentment and guilt, which are experienced by agents and victims each in their own way, could be inhibited by a denial of moral liability. The paradox can be expressed as an ill effect of a good principle: prior regulation, with openness of information, could lead to a confusion concerning responsibility after the event. Such paradoxes are familiar to those managing hazards of various sorts in the insurance field; thus "moral hazard" refers to the tendency of people to take chances once they know that the insurers will pay; and the "no fault" principle for common accidents, while seeming to exculpate the responsible persons, is promoted as being useful in preventing the expenses and injustices of litigation.