Grassroots Commentary

Too Much or Too Little Protection

George Rogers Clark · Nov. 28, 2012

“DHAKA, Bangladesh – Thousands of Bangladeshi workers blocked the streets of a Dhaka suburb Monday, throwing stones at factories and smashing vehicles, as they demanded justice for 112 people killed in a garment-factory fire that highlighted how industry and government have failed to protect workers from unsafe conditions.”

The gathering and actions of large numbers of protestors, anywhere in the world, often garner at least some attention from the media. ABC seems to be blaming Wal-Mart for this tragedy, because the factory made garments and some shipments were sold to Wal-Mart. Fox News had a factual report that was far more balanced. My point is that our media and our people can be expected to take different views when bad things happen. It would seem more appropriate to focus on the tragedy before the finger pointing begins. But in the aftermath, the important question is always this:

Are industry and government doing too little or too much to protect citizens of the world, but especially citizens of the U.S.?

It is a complex issue and unless one possesses a callous lack of concern for human life and wasted capital, there are no easy answers. All folks like me can do is to express their honest opinions and hope that it helps someone, in some way.

When disasters happen in foreign countries, it seems a stretch to blame a customer, like Wal-Mart, when obviously that government and that industry were responsible for the safety of their people. But, assuming a moral obligation, Wal-Mart has been trying to enforce better safety standards on its suppliers for a long time, including those in Bangladesh. Read the Fox News article; link above.

These kinds of disasters also occasionally happen in the U.S. The U.S. has stiff federal safety regulations and voluminous guidelines for almost every industry. We have innumerable federal bureaucrats employed to oversee, assist, and inspect. State and local governments also participate in safety. Business and industry in the U.S., always aware of the watchful eye of Uncle Sam, does a pretty fair job of self-monitoring in this area. No CEO or Safety Director wants their name and picture on TV as a result of a disaster.

Still, disasters happen, proving what we already knew: people are fallible. Whether employed by government or industry, people make mistakes. On a rare occasion, a corrupt business leadership manages to convince a long down-line of its employees to assist in cost cutting that diminishes safety. More often, a worker made a mistake; an inspector for the employer failed to catch the mistake; and sometimes, a federal inspector signed off on the other inspector’s work. Something goes boom. Then there is the public outcry. It is usually encouraged by politicians and the media. Always they hope the blame will fall on someone on the other side of the ideology table.

Now and then the cost of life and capital is so high that an outcry is expected. BP is still years away from settling all the claims for the Gulf oil platform explosion. Eleven workers died and the environmental cleanup cost is in the Billions of Dollars. Law suits are still pending, though some major cases have been settled. To BP’s credit, they have offered little resistance to their legal and moral obligation.

In Washington, the liberal-progressive reaction to disasters is first to point fingers. Secondly, they usually propose throwing more bureaucrats, regulation, and dollars at the problem. A human being made a mistake; let us throw more human beings and more capital at the problem.

One observation I might risk is that sometimes too much is too little. When government and industry employ an abundance of people to manage an important function, responsibility gets watered down and passed around to a great extent. Add the necessity of complex lines of communication with a large number of people, some private and some government, and what do you have? If not a prescription for disaster, it certainly could be considered a crack in the armor of defense.

A good friend of mine had a long, successful career as a director of corporate safety and security. I have heard his presentation for new hires. After a short, clear, concise delivery of the job description, he would say something like this: “This is your job. It is your exclusive responsibility. If something goes wrong I do not want your opinion of the failures of anyone else. I do not hold them responsible. This is your job. Screw it up and you have to answer to me, and I am not a patient man. I consider your willingness and ability to handle responsibility the key to our future relationship.”

Whew. He was pretty tough, huh? Let me share this: he was so successful that it took several years and much negotiation before his company would accept his retirement. They did not want to lose him. The man delegated well and got results and respect from his employees and his peers. His books on safety and security management are still popular.

There might be a few tax dollars saved by reducing the employment of federal bureaucrats in the interest of fiscal responsibility. However, in the area of safety, I would not risk the wrath of liberal media, politicians and citizens for that reason. Though we certainly have too many bureaucrats on the payroll, there are not enough savings to warrant such action in the area of safety. No, if I were going to ask for cuts, it would be for better results.

To close, please allow me to enumerate some key points:

1) People cause industrial disasters, not policies or programs or lack of regulations.

2) People make mistakes, because humans are fallible.

3) In the US, occasionally a corrupt business leader is complicit in a disaster, but more often it is a simple error compounded by circumstance and not caught in time by monitors, inspectors, etc.

4) In the context of safety, sometimes too much capital expenditure and too many bureaucrats compound communication errors and slow reaction times. In short, they increase costs and increase the problem.

There, you have it: they cannot accuse me of backing “draconian cuts” on this one. I am a proud American. I want my fellow citizens to be safe. I do not believe knee-jerk-attacks on American business are the answer. I do not believe more federal spending is the answer. Some industrial disasters are going to happen, but I favor efforts to prevent 100%. I will get my dander up when corruption is part of the equation. But neither is more government the answer for corruption. A higher moral/spiritual quality of the government and the people is the answer to that one.

George Rogers Clark blogs at myFreeBlogs:

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