Editor's Chronicle

Volume 3, 'Safety in Action' Issue, 1999

Shooting at the pianist

In the public debate over the Esso Longford incident in September 1998, where two maintenance workers were killed and the State of Victoria, Australia, lost its entire supply of gas for several weeks, the major focus of the media – and of the political debate in the Victorian Parliament - has been on the government inspection and control of the Esso Longford plant and the quality of these control activities.

Rather than aiming all the debate artillery at the field officers of the Victorian Workcover Authority, it would perhaps be more constructive to discuss the underlying principles of industrial safety control and inspection:

Naturally, matters of technical detail in relation to industrial safety is the responsibility of the industrial company. But these days also the control and inspection of technical details crucial to safety is the sole responsibility of the industrial operator.

Law makers and economists in many industrialized countries, including Australia, decided 25 years ago that tax-payers cannot afford to compete for the competence, skills and tertiary education necessary to run complex (and high-risk) technical installations. Such competence should be resourced and harnessed by these industries themselves.

Safety rules and regulations have been changed accordingly. The government control has been reduced to controlling if the operator seems to be in control of the safety of his operation; a sort of organizational audit. The old Industrial Safety Inspectorate has been scaled back, reduced in size and resources, and repeatedly renamed.

The principles and methods of government control of vital infrastructure and social services represent an important political topic. The professional safety fraternity in Australia is hoping for a debate on this. But it is crucial in the discussion about the Longford incident to place the responsibility squarely where it belongs; on the private industrial operator Esso.

Esso bears the responsibility for the technical, organizational, and social system which broke down in Longford. Esso has the capacity, the resources and the necessary skills to run such operations successfully. And Esso is responsible for the control of the Longford plant safety system and for all decisions on necessary maintenance schedules, investments needed and the staff training and competency requirements at the Longford plant.

Turning the light away from this basic fact and aiming the critique at the present inspectorial regime is like shooting at the pianist because you don’t like the music.

However, the fluent and well rehearsed public relations act put on by the Esso management - no doubt the corporate afterbirth of the Exxon Valdiz disaster - has not clouded the judgement of the Royal Commission into the Longford incident. Its findings, presented in late June 99, squarely identifies Esso as the sole responsible party for the disaster. But the Royal Commission report also argues that there might be a need for society to retain some form of technical systems control of high-hazard installations; in fact, it is suggested that Victoria needs to rethink its present structure of industrial safety inspection.

To resurrect the social control over high-tech, complex and high-hazard industrial installations should perhaps be seen not as a big swing back to prescription and bureaucratic rule in Australia but rather as an adjustment to mainstream good practice. Most jurisdictions in Europe and North America have some form of active technical compliance control of road, rail and sea transport (including dangerous goods) and of the nuclear power industry.

The more complicated question, which is difficult to push onto the debate agenda, is how to structure the necessary dialectics of industrial compliance control and occupational injury prevention, and what approaches should be used in terms of legal requirements, social services provided, and commercial consultancies offered.

The discussion about the acceptable levels of lost lives, lost limbs and lost days in working life has not started yet. In Victoria industrial safety is still trailing behind the development in road safety.

Tore J Larsson