I remember a number of years ago I heard an oil refinery plant manager refer to his job, and others like him as “go to jail: jobs. He meant that if things went horribly wrong on his watch, he would likely go to jail. He expressed concern that the emergence of criminalization of accidents in this industry would impact recruitment of talented leaders.
Today the New York Times published an editorial calling for the Obama administration to vigorously prosecute executives of BP for criminal offenses: But nothing would be more important now than a vigorous effort by the Obama administration to pursue the remaining penalties under federal environmental laws.
The laws of the land should absolutely be upheld. And the palpable anger of so many in the public toward BP during and after the spill may be satiated somewhat by seeing big oil executives in chains. But there are nagging questions in my head about what is happening here, and the idea of “go to jail” jobs.
I’ve had these questions for many years as one of the first major events I was involved in, the Olympic Pipeline disaster of 1999, resulted in several going to jail, including the general manager of the pipeline company. He was guilty of not properly reading the results of internal inspection data which showed “anomalies” in pipeline wall strength. One of those anomalies ended up at the point of failure when a series of otherwise completely unrelated problems (computer glitches, combined with valve issues) caused a “hammer” or surge of pressure in the line, which ended up failing at the weakest point. Two young boys and a young man tragically lost their lives. I knew at least some of the parents of the victims. And I also got to know the general manager who ultimately went to jail for their deaths. I know his broken heart over the tragedy, his decency and humanity. He was a person who made mistakes that proved to be horribly costly. But he was no criminal.
In the case of the manslaughter charges against the BP executives, their fault is based on “result of a failure to properly interpret pressure tests on the well that might have foretold the explosion,” according to the NYT report.
My nagging question is this: aren’t there a lot of jobs where misreading data or misinterpreting warning signs are bad and can cause a lot of harm? Have you ever made a serious mistake in your work? Now, maybe the difference is that if you screw up or if I screw up, people’s lives will not necessarily be lost or huge environmental havoc caused. True enough, but you cannot read an account of warfare without realizing that the misjudgments of commanders in the fields costs a great many precious lives. I can see that military personnel should be protected against “go to jail” jobs because their work involved much inherent danger, putting men and women in harm’s way for a good cause. And because if we did this to our military leaders, whoever would want to become one. But, as one plant manager said, the process of “boiling oil,” which is what they do at refineries is inherently dangerous. It puts men and women in harms way, and some anyway think it is for a good cause–keeping our world running.
There are lots of other jobs that if mistakes are made, even tiny mistakes, can cascade into fatalities. It is well known that lots of people get sick in hospitals. Those sterilizing equipment or doing laundry or providing patient care may be responsible through errors, carelessness, negligence. We don’t have manslaughter charges filed for these. Those making computer chips could conceivably make tiny mistakes that could cause massive failures–maybe even bringing an airliner down. I suspect that chipmakers would not be happy to have their jobs classified as go to jail jobs.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying at all that what happened in the Gulf of Mexico in April, 2010 isn’t worthy of the most serious scrutiny and application of the law. I’m just raising a question here. How do we as a society decide which human errors are subject to the charge of manslaughter? It is so easy today to demonize the powerful companies and people who run them. But, in this process, so evident in our popular culture and media, are we doing harm to ourselves? And, more importantly, is it just?
Just asking the question.