Workers Under Pressure to Complete the Job: Hard Lessons from Chernobyl and Deepwater Horizon


We’ve noted the parallels between the BP oil spill and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster before, particularly to point out how the “official” science can differ dramatically from independent research. Now Geoffrey Lean, writing in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, connects those dots a bit himself.

Granted, Mr. Lean picks up the London theme of “the workers killed themselves,” but he also visits the attitudes and culture that brought about both of these catastrophic events. He touches on the recent presidential commission report on the BP spill: “… as Co-Chairman William Reilly put it, that the disaster resulted from a series of decisions made by ‘competent persons’ which ‘look like they were just plain wrong.’ But nobody knows why they were made.”

Mr. Lean has done extensive research on the Chernobyl disaster and has written about it. He sheds some light on what went wrong: “It is now fashionable to blame the accident on the Russian RBMK reactor design. But, though this was not great, the world’s worst nuclear disaster was, in fact, caused by a similar chain of human errors… under pressure to complete a test, the operators made six crucial mistakes, including progressively switching off every one of the safety systems.”

That “pressure to complete” testing sounds much like the pressures on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. It was stunning when the president’s commission dismissed financial motives for the BP spill – when the “pressure” was all about making money, meeting deadlines, keeping jobs. It’s a decent bet that those workers made those tough decisions because they felt compelled to do so – to keep their jobs and to keep putting food on their tables. We’ve seen that even beach-cleanup contractors who dare speak to anyone (e.g., members of the media) are immediately out of work. There’s no doubt in my mind that there was pressure to complete the job (or “rush job” as it has been described) on the Deepwater Horizon, regardless of the accompanying dangers.

Mr. Lean builds to this: “So if we decide that our need for the energy outweighs the risks, we must, at least, beware of overconfidence.” To which I would add, we should also beware of a “culture of profit” that exerts pressure on workers to risk their lives.

The Telegraph piece is here:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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