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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
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View the documentIndustrial accidents, industrial society, and recovery

Industrial accidents, industrial society, and recovery

Since the 1970s, a number of serious industrial accidents have provoked a reappraisal of safety issues. First, it was realized that even apparently unique industrial disasters have regular causes; in one sense they are all "man-made" (Turner 1978) because of the way they occur through failure of systems for prevention. A more radical interpretation, derived from a study of Three Mile Island, is that they are actually "normal accidents" (Perrow 1984). The affected industries, while not planning such accidents, accept them as a normal aspect of operations. We can even consider industrial systems as "accident generating systems" (Haastrup and Funtowicz 1992), routinely producing unwanted outputs along with their intended products; these include continuous pollution and wastes, along with occasional incidents of different intensities. When an incident goes beyond a certain threshold (defined conventionally by the terms of relevant regulations) it is deemed to be an "accident," and some accidents eventually become disasters. But, as the Seveso case shows, even a "disaster" has strongly conventional elements in its definition and response (Susman, O'Keefe, and Wisner 1983; Quarantelli 1987). Thus, our comprehension of industrial risks has moved completely away from the acausal or "acts of God" approach; they are creations of the industrial system as much as its intended products.

This new awareness about industrial risks has coincided with an increasing concern for the perceived loss of environmental quality due to the synergistic effects of technological development and environmental processes, as in the cases of acid rain and global warming. We now appreciate that the technological system is global, complex, and rather tightly coupled. The dividing line between the "goods" and the "bads" produced by the system is sinuous and indistinct. Implementation of this ecological awareness in industrial and regulatory practice is now under way.

The new ecological awareness includes an appreciation not only of the interconnectedness of the effects of the "bads" of the industrial system but also of the conventional character of the traditional distinction between "manmade" and "natural." Industrial accidents, and recovery from them, cannot be seen in isolation from the pathologies of the total industrial system, itself a subsystem of the planet. Contradictions within that subsystem, and between it and other components of the total system, are the key to its comprehension. Thus, famine and floods (for example) may now be no different in kind from the sudden events called industrial accidents and disasters.

To understand the processes of recovery from such unwanted events we must conceive of them as occurring within that total system. In the case of industrial disasters, the recovery of a community takes place not only in the societal sphere but also in its moral dimensions and, equally importantly, in its ecological aspects as well. Thus, community recovery exists as part of a wider process, involving all the elements of the total ecosystem.

Seveso's recovery was dependent on the special character of the incident itself and especially on the response of the firm and the authorities. Seveso was especially fortunate, not merely because the damage occurred over a short time rather than a protracted period but also because the factory at Meda could be dispensed with. Other classic industrial disasters, such as Chernobyl and Bhopal, involved installations which, although themselves taken out of service, belong to a class that is kept in operation - even in the same locality. In such cases the hazard is chronic and there is no escape from the relevant pathologies of the industrial system.