Retraining Our Understanding and Beliefs of Risk with the Oil Industry

By Jay Colingham MPH, LABB Research Associate

A review of “From SEMP to SEMS: Industry’s response to the Deepwater Horizon / Macondo disaster” (Callahan, 2012)

For many, the fear of a danger can be relatively irrational.  A person can be afraid of sharks, clowns, or heights, often with a very small risk of injury or death.  In the refinery and oil extraction business, risk is calculated.  Over the last two hundred years, scientists have made advances in technology surrounding the risk of oil industry dangers that could potentially save lives from both accidental problems like equipment failure and explosions or by reducing the number of smaller accidents that create exposure to pollution and toxins around refineries and wells.  Many businesses elect not to use all of these advancements or practices for the benefit of immediate profit margins. This review will cover an essay by Jonathan Callahan of about the Deepwater Horizon / Macondo disaster and how risk was ‘analyzed’ and how hazards were considered insignificant.

In our everyday lives, Americans accept mortality when it is perceived as inevitable.  If a large city had frequent motor vehicle deaths at a rate of 500 per year and one plane crash killing 500 people in a year, the city would perceive the hazard of the airplane accident to be greater.  The overall fatalities are the same in both situations for the model city.  This perceived risk of refinery and drilling accidents has been manipulated by the oil industry through the use of media and consulting groups as well as through the use of rapid technological development.  In the United States, oil refineries and drilling companies often use technology that is not yet regulated (such as fracking) and will move to another level of technology once the agency for regulation has created criteria.

Unlike less profitable-per-unit trades, oil does not have independent regulators employed at each location of regulation (like animal slaughterhouses do).  In 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle about the beef industry and the public united in indignation for abusive and outrageous conditions in Chicago stockyards and slaughtering houses.  There are certainly many barriers for the public to make change in the oil industry but there is no reason not to organize and support one another in redefining what we accept as risk in the oil industry.

Risk is the measure of how consequences of an event and the predicted frequency embody the hazard of that event occurring.  The oil industry values disaster like a person’s fear of sharks, there may be a very great consequence with an unperceivable predicted frequency of the hazard.  With complex equations created by actuaries to determine the insurable risk, the oil industry routinely cuts corners on replacing and maintaining equipment while putting workers lives at risk.  This practice is equitable to doubling the number of sharks and expecting that most people will never know the difference.

We do not want to appear as alarmists because we understand the adage of the Boy Who Cried Wolf would damage our credibility as an organization.  Big oil takes advantage of our current system and monetizes on risk and the lives and health of our communities.  Deepwater Horizon is a valid example of this hazard having what actuaries considered a high consequence, low predicted frequency event.  Ironically, the moment a disaster that killed eleven people, resulted in over one billion dollars of structural damage and indefinite amounts of damage to fishing, the health of responders, and dousing 252 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico occurred, the oil industry has not taken action to update practices and faulty equipment.  Oil companies do not view the risk of catastrophic disaster as a threat or obstacle but rather an opportunity.

At this point, a company can measure how the practice of negligence in maintaining equipment will cost other locations during a hazard. The oil industry believes that it is impossible to have zero risk and that hazards will always exist.  Cutting the recommended workforce and extending the manufacturer determined life expectancy for critical equipment in drilling and refining beyond a reasonable length of use is the way the oil industry has showed it understands the risk of fatality.

We can identify our “airplane crash” in the Louisiana community without even addressing the growing number of people with persistent illness due to the oil spill, working in and living near refineries, or on drilling platforms.  Instead of working to further reduce the number of fatalities over a time span and increase the time between fatalities, the oil industry has modified their perspective to a much more simple profit per fatality cost model.  If a fatality has a perceived cost, maximizing this value by cutting operation costs will result in the greatest margin of profit for effort safety.  In Deepwater Horizon, 11 men were just a few more dollars in the consequential cost of a monetary risk analysis.

The United Steelworkers are subjected to more hazards in a week than most citizens will be in a year, if not their whole life.  Organizing to focus our energy around reducing workplace hazards by increasing the number of workers and improving the maintenance and replacement cycle for equipment can reduce the occupational risk and technical risk of the oil industry in Louisiana.

Additionally, reducing the number of accidents at refineries will decrease the amount of pollution and provide a safer environment for neighbors that live on the fence-line of oil refineries or work by fishing the water around drilling platforms.  With greater yield at refineries and drilling platforms, technological improvements can continue to increase yield safely and result in greater profits for the oil industry and a stronger economy for Louisiana.  While big oil has chosen to treat our lives and health as a number, risk analysis is a calculation of perception and through action, we can support a better way of living.


Callahan, J. (2012, April 2). From SEMP to SEMS: Industry’s response to Deepwater Horizon / Macondo disaster. Retrieved April 3, 2012, from The Oil Drum:

This entry was posted in BP Oil Spill, Public Health, Seafood safety, Worker Health. Bookmark the permalink.

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