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?