Blog, Crisis Management

Failing to Learn the Lessons: The Sago Mine Disaster

The most disturbing thing about the recent Sago mine disaster is that, of course, it didn’t have to happen. Unlike natural disasters, human disasters (crises) are not inevitable. We now know enough about dangerous and complex technologies such that with few exceptions, they can be managed safely.

As someone who has studied natural and human-caused disasters and crises for nearly 25 years, I am especially disturbed by the fact that we fail over and over again to learn the same lessons that they have to teach.

Sadly, the Sago tragedy is not unique. In fact, it follows the same general pattern that is characteristic of virtually all major disasters and crises. Unless we finally learn this pattern, and take appropriate preventative actions, then we have no chance whatsoever of breaking it.

First of all, major human-caused crises just “don’t happen.” Long before they actually occur, they are preceded by a trail of early warning signals. If these signals are picked up (not blocked or ignored) and acted upon, then virtually all major disasters and crises can be prevented, the best possible form of crisis management. In the case of Sago, the repeated safety violations were a clear and strong signal that a major crisis was almost certain to occur.

Second, the failure to attend to early warning signals is itself a strong signal that one is dealing with a crisis prone organization. That is, the organization’s culture does not truly value safety above profits. In other words, it is not safety culture. This is especially true of those organizations that have recently been acquired through acquisitions, mergers, or takeovers. In order to boost sagging profits, the first thing to be cut is almost always health and safety expenditures.

Third, the failure to take safety seriously is a strong indicator that the government agencies that are supposed to regulate the industry also failed to do their jobs. Politics obviously plays a big role here, especially with administrations that are overly friendly to business.

Four, unless one is specifically trained in crisis communications, one invariably says and does the wrong things. For instance, it is acceptable for the president of Sago to apologize for botching communications. But, it is morally reprehensible for him to defend his actions by declaring that he was physically and mentally exhausted. In saying this, he is portraying himself as a victim when the real victims are readily apparent to all.

Five, with few exceptions the media move on to the next breaking crisis so that the victims are left to bear the long-term effects in relative isolation, which only adds to their suffering.

Six, because we are far from being a crisis-prepared culture, we oscillate wildly between outright denial for the most part and short bursts of frenetic frenzy. For instance, instead of preparing for bird-flu or terrorism as long-term events, we ignore them until they are right in front of us. And, of course, politicians manipulate them for their personal gain.

If there is any good news, it is that my colleagues and I have found a tiny set of major organizations in the for-profit sector that truly “get it.” They have not only learned the lessons that past crises have to teach, but they have put them into practice. As a result, their day-to-day business operations have been improved. While they still experience crises, they experience substantially fewer and they recover much, much faster. They are also far more profitable than their crisis-prone counterparts.

In short, being prepared for major crises is not only good for us, but it is good for business as well.

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