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Corporate Manslaughter?

Monday, November 26th, 2012

Remember the 2010 BP oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico? This month two BP supervisors were indicted on manslaughter charges connected to the oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers.  Another executive was charged with lying to federal investigators about how much oil was flowing into the Gulf during the disaster.

The federal indictment said the two supervisors were negligent in maintaining safety standards on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Last year a White House commission charged with investigating the disaster found that BP suffered from a systemic failure of management. In particular, the commission charged that BP had a pattern of cutting corners on safety to safe time and cost.

“Whether purposeful or not, many of the decisions that BP, Halliburton, and Transocean made that increased the risk of the Macondo blowout clearly saved those companies significant time (and money),” the commission report said.

Where have we heard this before? We’ve heard the same story about coal mine and chemical plant owners and asbestos manufacturers, who risked the lives of employees to accident, poison or mesothelioma rather than spend the money on safety precautions.

This is not the first time a U.S. court has found company executives guilty of manslaughter when workers die on the job. The first case involved an Illinois company called Film Recovery Systems Inc. This company extracted silver from camera and x-ray film. The process involved the use of cyanide.

In 1983, an employee of Film Recovery Systems named Stefan Golab lost consciousness while working near a vat of boiling cyanide. He was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead on arrival. An autopsy revealed Golab had died of cyanide poisoning.

Investigation revealed that most of the Film Recovery System employees involved in the extraction procedure had symptoms of cyanide poisoning. The plant was using 10,000 pounds of sodium cyanide each month, and cyanide gas often escaped from vats. Workers were given only paper masks and cloth gloves to work with the film and cyanide.

Workers — many of whom were illegal immigrants — also said they were not told what was in the chemicals they used in their jobs. Safety standards were so lax that the workers sometimes heated their lunches in the same equipment that was used to heat cyanide.

In 1985, Film Recovery’s president, plant manager and plant foreman were found guilty of murder. In 1990 an Illinois Court of Appeals overturned the convictions, but the three managers later pleaded guilty to manslaughter to avoid another trial.

What’s the moral here? We want to think well of business owners — they are job creators, after all — and it’s hard to believe some of them would risk their employees’ lives to make a bigger profit. But we see, time and time again, that at least some business owners will take those risks.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster not only took the lives of eleven oil rig workers; it also spilled 206 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The environmental damage is still being measured.

BP agreed to pay $4.5 billion in a settlement with the U.S. government. BP also has spent a lot of money on advertising to polish its corporate image. But if history is our guide, somewhere in the oil industry workers still are working in unsafe conditions, because some executives are more keen about squeezing every drop of profit out of their companies than about the lives of employees. And they always think they’ll get away with it.