Don’t be a BP

By Matthew A. Daecher

The ongoing oil tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico is the worst environmental disaster in our country’s history. While we will not know the ultimate cost and result of the spill for many years to come, the spill and the response by British Petroleum (BP) offer some lessons, or hopefully reinforce what we already know.

You will probably never experience such a catastrophic incident, though in this industry the possibility is real and part of doing business. The first event that comes to mind is a catastrophic vehicle collision, but a workplace fatality is also a genuine possibility. While a catastrophic incident in the bus industry would not affect nearly as many people as the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the lessons you can take away are directly applicable to a catastrophic accident in the bus industry.

Lesson 1: Prepare for the microscope.
When a catastrophe occurs, every component of the event is meticulously scrutinized under the microscope. This includes not only the individuals involved, but also the practices of the myriad companies that come into play. You can be sure that any past sins unknown to most could very well come back to haunt the organization. Up until a couple weeks ago if someone had asked me about BP and its safety program, my sense would have been that such a large, worldwide corporation likely has an advanced risk management program and operates in a safe and risk adverse manner. Well, thanks to the microscope, I now know the shocking truth.

BP had hundreds more safety violations issued than any of its peers in the last several years. Statistics show BP ran up 760 “egregious, willful” safety violations, while Sunoco and Conoco-Phillips each had eight, Citgo had two and Exxon had one comparable citation. That’s a far cry from a safe company. And while BP may still prove to have enough resources to weather the storm, many bus operators would be challenged to survive a catastrophic incident if they had such a poor report card.

Lesson 2: Develop a real plan
Initially the largest issue facing BP was its lack of response to the disaster. Its lack of preparedness to respond to and remedy the leak continues to perplex me. However it appears BP is not alone in this regard. Upon Congressional inquiries it became apparent that many of the oil companies doing business in the Gulf of Mexico have eerily similar response plans. Not only are the response plans inadequate, but also they are in some regards laughable. Described as “boilerplate” from region to region, the Gulf response plan talks about biological impacts on seals, sea otters and walruses — even though no such animals live in the Gulf. This sounds to me like someone sold generic response plans to BP and their peers, and little thought went into them at all. This may explain why virtually all of the attempted remedies to contain the leak were not listed anywhere in the response plan.

Generic or model policies are nothing new. In fact I provide such policies and outlines to my customers many other companies make the same pitch for model plans. The key for any company using such a plan — a key BP apparently ignored — is to customize the content to fit the specific situation. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, but a customized model plan must incorporate specifics only applicable to your company, and you certainly need to take ownership of any plan you adopt. More than just a document in a binder, you will have a plan that fits with your operations and gives you a fighting chance.

Lesson 3: Show some empathy
The critics are having a field day with BP’s public responses to the disaster. Much to the delight of the media, BP’s CEO has made repeated errors while speaking about the spill and been cast as a villain when engaging in leisurely pursuits and activities un-related to spill response. The best advice is to show empathy for those affected and be engaged and involved in handling the necessary response activities – unpleasant as they may be. And be cognizant of your perception to outsiders, both in what you say and what you do.

Matthew A. Daecher is president and CEO of Daecher Consulting Group, Inc., Camp Hills, PA.