Tag Archives: go to jail jobs

Farmers now have “go to jail jobs” too

(Similar post also published on emergencymgmt.com)

A few years ago, a friend and board member of my company who was an oil industry executive, talked about “go to jail” jobs. He said a lot of senior leadership positions in the oil industry were now jobs that carried the risk of jail time if things went wrong on their watch.

That was borne out in the first major crisis I was involved in, the Olympic Pipeline accident. The GM of the pipeline company went to jail for six months. This despite the fact that the accident, like many, was caused by a very strange confluence of a number of factors, many of which he had absolutely no control over and which, if they had changed just a bit, would have prevented the accident from happening.

Now I am shocked, appalled and saddened to find out that farmers also have “go to jail” jobs. This article from NBC News tells about the sentencing of two young Colorado farmers from whose farm tainted cantaloupes emerged that resulted in a listeria outbreak that killed 33 people. The farmers narrowly avoided jail time, instead are sentenced to five years probation and a large fine. The reporter/editor of the article clearly feels this was a gross injustice. Look at the headline and focus of the article.

It is a horrible tragedy that 33 people lost their lives, including the 92 year old “spry” victim whose son is so disappointed in the result. If there was intent, if there was criminal negligence, if there was an established pattern of callous disregard for harming others, I could see the calls for treating these farmers as criminals. But, even this very biased article makes it clear there was no intent, no pattern, no callousness. There was a mistake, or mistakes made. The farmers are called “salt of the earth” types.

I will withhold further comment on the sad state of our justice system, and our society, and the state of our media. Instead, this situation requires the attention of anyone who is in a business or government position where action or inaction could harm others. And that is a lot of you.

First, the lesson clearly is to look at all your plans and procedures and make certain you are doing all you can to prevent such things from happening. That is the value of such a great tragedy and the shocking outcome. Preventive measures will greatly reduce the risk, but not eliminate it. And when, despite your best efforts, something goes horribly wrong, what do you do?

This situation creates a dilemma for crisis communications. In the pipeline accident the company was “lawyered up” to the max. But, it made sense despite the severe impact on reputation. The company went bankrupt, but gasoline continues to flow through the pipe. Now farmers and others have to look at the legal implications when something goes wrong. A sincere apology with acceptance of responsibility is absolutely necessary to avoid turning the media and public against you. And a highly negative public atmosphere is just what a plaintiff’s attorney or prosecuting attorney wants when selecting a jury. So, it makes sense to be transparent, empathetic and forthcoming. But, such admission in our great nation, is going to be used against you in court. So, you end up walking a very fine line–or saying nothing.

There are two preventive measures to consider right now. One, we already talked about, which is preventing bad things from happening. The other, recognizing that all risks can’t be eliminated, is building reputation equity before something bad happens. I commented on this on Rich Klein’s “The Crisis Show” last week looking at the very different press coverage and social media comment about Freedom Industries vs. International Nutrition. Both had tragedies–one of them involving fatalities. But it was the company without the fatalities that took by far the greatest beating. It’s worthwhile looking at why that may be.

“Go to jail jobs”: justice or a reflection of society?

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.