Watching news reports last week about explosions at one of my former plants in Crosby, Texas, rekindled these thoughts in me once again. To be precise, the plant really wasn’t mine. I didn’t own it. But I was responsible for it. I was the CEO of the company that owned and operated the plant.
But that’s not the point. The point is this: Why do humans fail to address threats until they’ve materialized?
The most notable example was 9/11. We had been warned that terrorists might fly planes into buildings. But we ignored the warnings and then, when the threat turned into reality, made excuses by claiming no one could have foreseen such an event (even though some did).
There are countless other examples. The Crosby plant is just the latest. The situation there was avoidable. So why was it allowed to happen?
Vera, the answer to my first question (why do we fail to address threats?) is this: I’m not sure.
I don’t know why people are so reluctant to address threats when there’s time to do something about it. Complacency? Poor judgment? Laziness? Lack of concern? I’m not entirely sure.
But I do know one factor that plays a role: money.
Solutions often require spending money, either on capital or higher operating expenses. But you get ahead in corporate America by cutting costs, not increasing them. So the incentives reward deferral and avoidance. And the system usually doesn’t tolerate people who force it to confront risks, especially ones that require money to ameliorate.
(As an aside, this is why I’m bemused by people who say we don’t need regulation. All that tells me is the person is utterly clueless and has never run a business that has the capacity to inflict harm (to people, the financial system, the environment, etc.). Opinion grounded in ignorance can do a lot of harm and we’re seeing that play out on the national stage today. But that’s beyond the scope of this post.)
Well, I suppose there isn’t much you or I can do about it. Money rules. Safety often doesn’t.
So does that mean we can do nothing about it? Not quite.
We can limit our own exposure to avoidable risks.
In that vein, here is one thing we can do to reduce those risks materially: avoid living near train tracks or chemical or fertilizer plants (or certain other industrial plants for that matter).
I don’t want to share details because I don’t want to risk giving anyone an idea that may not have occurred to them. Suffice it to say the risks associated with living near train tracks, fertilizer plants and certain chemical plants are much higher than most people think.
Take Toulouse, France as an example. On September 21, 2001, a plant that was owned by a sister company of Arkema Inc. (the company that owns and operates the Crosby, Texas plant) had an incident. The explosion killed 31 people and injured more than 2,400. Property loss was massive. The only reason the explosion didn’t receive more attention was that it came on the heels of 9/11, which, understandably, still captured America’s attention.
In short, where you choose to live can have dire consequences.
If you can’t avoid proximity, at least be sure not to live downwind. Know the direction of the prevailing winds in your area.
I made the mistake of failing to take this into consideration when we moved to Westtown, Pa., not far downwind from a chemical plant that could put the community at risk. I hope not to make the same mistake again. (Fortunately, nothing happened at Westtown when we lived there, and, of course, I hope that nothing ever does.)
Now I realize, in most cases, the risk of something bad happening isn’t high. But I also know that humans tend to think the worst that could happen has already happened. Yet reason tells us that’s merely an embedded bias and isn’t supported by fact or reality. The worst that could happen may be around the corner.
And although the risk of something really bad happening may not be high, the risk of something really bad happening if an event does occur can be very high. Indeed, it can be catastrophic.
I’m aware of one chemical plant that could threaten (lethally) people 18 miles downwind. And I know that groundwater is contaminated at and around many chemical and other industrial sites in the U.S. (and other countries, too). And that a lot of bad stuff (including carcinogens) still spews from stacks and plants.
I’m also aware that few people know what’s being transported on our rail lines and what could happen if a breach occurred, in just one rail car, in a populated area. If they did, something would change.
But as it is, the companies and their lobbyists bend laws and regulations their way via their campaign contributions and other means and we go on our merry way — unless and until catastrophe strikes, that is.
Nothing good can come from living near a chemical plant or other industrial site that handles or produces toxic or hazardous substances or emits such substances into the air or disposes of them into the ground.
And nothing good can come from living near a train track.
But a lot bad can come from living near a chemical plant or train track. The fact that most people don’t appreciate what can happen doesn’t make the risk any less real.
It would be nice if we could count on our fellow human’s to avoid doing things that put others at risk. It would be nice. But we can’t.
Therefore, each person has to take responsibility for his or her own safety, Vera. We can’t eliminate all of the risks. A plane could fall from the sky onto our house. A driver could cross the road and hit us head on (I lost an aunt and cousin this way). The possibilities for something bad happening are seemingly limitless. But you can’t control what you can’t control. And, frankly, I don’t worry about those risks.
But there are things we can do to minimize unnecessary risks. One thing we can do is to be mindful about where we live.
Know your surroundings. There is no upside to taking avoidable risks when better options exist.