Spill, Baby, Spill

Stephen Evanoff

My father was fond of saying, “Learn from other people’s mistakes.” I think there are lessons about effective risk communication that EHS managers can learn from the off-shore oil drilling disaster we are witnessing in the Gulf of Mexico. The initial reactions by the Coast Guard spokeswoman, politicians, the news media and the public suggest to me a general under-estimation of the risks associated with outer continental shelf oil extraction.

The situation takes me back to the conclusion drawn by Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman when he served on the Rogers Commission investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. During his investigation, Feynman learned that the project engineers had estimated the risk of a catastrophic failure on launch in the range of 1-in-100, whereas the top managers had estimated the risk of catastrophic failure in the range of 1-in-10,000 and 1-in-100,000. Feynman famously concluded in his report, “NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources. For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

What should EHS managers learn from this latest disaster about communicating EHS risk to management and the public?


About Stephen Evanoff

Stephen Evanoff is Vice President of Environment, Health and Safety for Danaher Corp. and President of NAEM’s Board of Directors. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveEvanoff.

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  1. Fred Rubel

    May 14, 2010


    Nice grab of a good “teaching moment,” and time to give pause. Risk is a funny thing. No one likes it if you are perceived to be too conservative and a negative outcome does not occur. Yet as we see, the “unlikely” does occur. When conducting a Job Safety Analysis or an environmental or safety regulatory compliance audit, one has to keep in mind, and be ready to cite the “unlikely” events that do actually occur, without being wildly speculative. My take – – in addition to requiring someone with proper qualifiications, it takes some experience and associated perspective, or “institutional memory” of lessons learned, to strike an appropriate balance so that actions proceed with knowledge-based reason.

    • Stephen Evanoff

      May 14, 2010


      You raise a critically-important point about the perception that someone who raises issues may be perceived as “wildly speculative.” In both the Challenger situation and, it appears, this oil drilling failure, there was a prevailing attitude that under-estimated the risk. Anyone who attempted to raise concern would need to be incredibly thoughtful in how he/she raised the issue and would need to have made an very compelling case. In the end, the only way to prevent these events in the future is to establish a process assurance system that effectively manages risk and a culture that is open to internal questioning. Organizations have become so complex, that the old hero model doesn’t work. It takes the entire organization. A brilliant, insightly leader or engineer can’t prevent these events by acting alone.

  2. David Sousa

    May 14, 2010


    I take exception to you calling out how the U.S. Coast Guard has responded to this spill. Now, I am a member of the Coast Guard Reserve and am a qualified Pollution Investigator. We are tasked with either the oversight of the responsible party’s clean up efforts or we federalize the spill if no RP is found and we run the clean up from start to finish. In this case, we have been working with all concerned parties to mitigate the impact of the spill’s affect on the environment.

    So, why do you feel that our initial reaction to this catastrophe was sub-par? It is not our job to create the risk assessments for these rigs, however, we are tasked with helping clean up the messes that they make when something like this happens.

    May I suggest that you go to the shores of the Gulf states that are going to be affected by the oil and volunteer your time to work with my fellow P.I.’s. This way you can get a first hand look and what we do which I think will change your option of us.

    Yes, the rules and regulations are probably out of date, however, that is no reason to call out those who are trying to help mitigate the spill’s impact. Please, be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

    • Stephen Evanoff

      May 14, 2010


      My mention of the Coast Guard was not in reference to the agency’s field response, and my intent was not to imply criticism of the agency’s work. My comment was in reference to the spokesperson’s radio interviews the first several days after the event. I heard two interviews with her on NPR and one on the BBC World News. The tone of her remarks, like many other people in government, industry and the press, during the early days after the spill began, suggested an under-estimation of the risk and magnitude of the event. I think that any reasonable person who listens to those interviews would concur. None of use wanted to believe that the situation was as bad as it has turned out to be.

      I know several Coast Guard officers. You are all capable and justifiably proud people. Glad to see you standing up for the agency when you feel it has been impugned, which was not my intention.

  3. Steve Beurkens

    May 14, 2010

    Risk management is indeed a “perception based” process. Although one cannot always completely analyze and/or mitigate risks associated with certain efforts, in my own perhaps hugely naive perception of the oil spill it would seem especially prudent to err on the side of EXTRA caution, especially with such an environmentally sensitive issue. Again, perhaps through my own uninformed basis, I have shut off valves at the source of my homes water supply, at the sinks, at the toilets, and overload breakers on my electrical panel. No shut off valve at the well head?? Isn’t the ocean at least as important as my kitchen floor?

  4. john

    May 14, 2010

    Reminds me of discussion I read of mountaineering accidents. Inherently that endevor is comprised of thousands of moments where the climber avoids disasters…but when one does occur, they tend to be extreme. The very complexity (like a space launch) of the activity makes small component failures routine (usually handled by fail safe measures), but eventually they chain together and lead to a large system failure.

  5. Ernesto Martinez

    May 14, 2010

    More than a lesson learned, I have a question: Where are the Good Samaritans? Maybe they are out there but are not being covered by the media, but one would think that in light of a massive environmental event that is already having a huge impact on a lor folks, other kindred organizations in the oil industry would be out there lending a hand since day one. After all they know-how and resources on emergency management and spill response. Let’s worry about who pays the bill later.

  6. Alex Pollock

    May 14, 2010

    Thanks Stephen for another thoughtful blog..and particularly timely. I’ve watched with great interest these recent events unfold. I’d have some experience with “spills” at a local level and this brings back many memories. Some key ones being:
    -have a contingency plan. Develop scenarios around what could be a “predictable surprise.”
    -when the cameras are in your face you cannot win..but work hard not to loose more ground
    -create an “emotional bank account” with your key stakeholders and frequently make deposits for a period of withdrawal will likely come
    -know how to access the expertise you need quickly

    Hope this contributes to more dialogue.

  7. John Nagle

    May 14, 2010

    The consequence of a parachute failure doesn’t occur until impact.
    Of course the PR response from all parties is inadequate to the situation because there is no adequate explanation for an operation to go forward on faulty risk assessment. There is no defensible position.
    Downplaying the potential risk in order to achieve project approval isn’t acceptable when the failure takes live, livelihoods and leaves a damaged ecological legacy that spans generations. The risk needs to be clearly understood and communicated so those most affected can make the decision whether they want to take the risk. If the question was poised to the people of the Gulf states; do they want off shore deep water drilling in return for the chance of this risk, then we wouldn’t be facing this destruction of the fisheries, tourist industries and vegetative buffers that protect the population from hurricanes.

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