Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Sizing Up Safety

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Sizing Up Safety

Article excerpt

SIZING UP SAFETY

I've never been a wholehearted supporter of the "small is beautiful" ethos, except when it comes to checkout lines and babies. Bigness has its merits. We'd all likely prefer a big bank account to a small one, for instance. And if I should ever encounter another driver head on, I want the airbag that pops out of my steering wheel to be able to double as a hot air balloon.

But when it comes to big business, even a casual look at a newspaper during the past couple of years could cause you to question the superiority of size. Many of our largest firms have displayed an unparalleled appetite for becoming a bigger business by taking on big -- make that huge -- debts. These transactions have had a disturbing knack for turning into big -- make that cataclysmic -- bankruptcies. Even that artist of the deal, Donald Trump, has had his canvases dipped in several coats of red.

If big business has been found wanting in some of its recent financial dealings, perhaps it should not come as much of a shock that its safety and health efforts have proven flawed as well.

Big companies have long argued that they had the experts and the resources to take care of their safety and health concerns. They have been careful to distance themselves from small business, which they portrayed as the lost sheep of occupational safety and health. I recall one industrial hygienist with a major tire manufacturer telling me: "We may not have all the answers, but the small companies don't even know the questions."

Yet, a series of high-profile OSHA investigations and major incidents during the past year have called into question the ability of many major businesses to successfully manage their health and safety risks. Consider the following examples:

On July 19, a BASF Corp. chemical plant in Cincinnati explodes, killing 2 workers and injuring 72 people. BASF, one of the largest firms in the world, had sales of $5.4 billion in the U.S. in 1989.

Earlier that month, the ARCO Chemical Co.'s plant in Channelview, Tex., suffered a fire and explosion that killed 17 workers, 11 of whom were contract workers. ARCO, the eighth largest petroleum firm in the U.S., had sales of $15.9 billion last year.

These explosions, of course, followed the disaster at the Phillips Petroleum refinery last October that killed 23 workers and resulted in a $5. …

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