1990s >> >> no-1045-september-1991

Disasters: who’s to blame?

Events which leave one sickened seem to be everyday if not twice-a-day occurrences lately. Switch off the horror films, view reality instead.

The pace of life and the power behind that tempo are aspects of modern society to which we close our minds, except when a tragedy hits the headlines. The way we distance ourselves is by never imagining that the latest horrific accident will happen to ourselves or our loved ones. Nor do we think that we are in any way responsible. Usually the fault is laid at “their” door, “they” didn’t do the job properly, “they” caused those people to drown, be burned or poisoned and “they” should do something about it. But if “we” think that a society operated by money and the wages system is the only way to be—if time is money and cutting corners a way to make more— if this is acceptable then so must be the Kings Cross fire, Hillsborough, Zeebrugge, Chernobyl, Bhopal, Seveso, Three Mile Island. Sellafield— the list could go on and on, and it is “we” who must share the responsibility.

What all these “accidents” have in common is that they are all related to the profit-making system of society that is capitalism—and its imperatives—and have all been attributed to human error. The Master of the ship the Herald of Free Enterprise (the name is a herald of foreboding) goes to sea with the bow doors open. The operators in the Three Mile Island disaster were said to have a “faulty mental model” of the system. The fire in the reactor at Sellafield/Windscale, in October 1957, was the result of certain control operations being performed too soon and too rapidly. In 1974 a DC10 plane crashed after taking off from Orly Airport near Paris killing 346 people: an overworked baggage handler had failed to secure the cargo doors, which subsequently blew out. The Torrey Canyon oil tanker ran aground when the captain who was trying to negotiate a difficult route through the Scilly Isles in order to meet an unrealistic schedule, failed to switch from auto pilot to manual control. At a critical moment, he turned the wheel hard and nothing happened.

The nature of the technology determines the scale of the disasters and human error is involved—but the error is the collective error of those who support present-day society rather than that of the individual workers. If the next terrible happening was to be in our own backyard, if our own child were to die of radiation-related leukaemia, surely we would say enough is enough, no more pain or grief over totally unnecessary events. There must be a better way of providing the necessities of our daily lives and, given collective responsibility, there is.

Janet Carter