Saturday, March 26, 2005

Transparency? Or PR Savvy?

It has been three days since the devastating explosion on Wednesday, March 23 at the BP refinery that killed 15 workers and seriously injured dozens of others. For those who want the latest on the situation in Texas City, a crew of Houston Chronicle journalists are doing a tremendous job keeping information flowing to the public. In today’s edition, one article “Victims remembered by families, friends” provides a snapshot into the lives of eight of the deceased. One worker, Lori Cruz, was in her final week of employment at the plant. Also among the dead were a husband and wife team, Linda and James Rowe, who traveled from Louisiana to work temporarily at the BP plant.

But woe to those who choose only to rely on the words of journalists. Where might one go for information about the Texas City explosion and investigation? Well, what about official government sources? Checking out OSHA’s website, you will be disappointed. There is no mention of the explosion. Instead, workers and an interested public will learn that OSHA and the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) renewed their alliance. (You’ve read previously here about these alliances.) Another prominent announcement on OSHA’s website describes the President’s FY’2006 budget request. Despite the pronouncement that the budget will make “a positive impact on workplace safety and health,” it includes the elimination of the $10.2 million Susan Harwood training grants program.

Noticeably absent from OSHA’s site is any mention of the agency’s role in investigating the explosion at the BP refinery. We know that OSHA experts are on the scene, but I guess this Department of Labor prefers to focus on hand-shakes and other niceties of workers’ safety and health, and not the nightmarish explosions, unnecessary deaths, and the other awful realities faced by workers at many workplaces. The other federal agency on the scene is the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB). In contrast to OSHA, the CSB’s homepage prominently displays a news release noting that the agency has seven investigators on the scene, and provides the names (yes, the names of actual, real people) and phone numbers of CSB staff to contact for further information.

OK, so much for the feds. Go to the BP site and information about the explosion is front-and-center on their homepage. Granted, this is a multi-billion dollar firm that spends gazillions on public relations, but at least they are acknowledging that the explosion occurred, that 15 people perished, that many others were injured, and that a community is stricken by grief and pollution. In addition to the information on their homepage, BP has created a separate information page which includes a very personal message from the plant director, the names of the deceased and an update on recovery efforts and the beginning phase of the investigation. The BP site also mentions that the Paper, Allied Chemical Employees International Union (PACE) has begun an independent investigation of the explosion. (This blogger couldn’t find any information on the PACE website about the BP explosion.)

What about the Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc., employer of 11 of the 15 victims of the refinery disaster? Go to their website, and it looks like business as usual. After clicking through the site, including the world map showing Jacobs Engineering has offices in 66 cities worldwide, I continued to search for some sign that someone in the firm’s corporate offices realized there had been a terrible explosion. Finally, I found it, a brief news release, tucked under Investor Relations.

Have I been co-opted by BP’s sophisticated public relations apparatus? Am I giving this global conglomerate undeserving credit for being transparent? Given what we are learning about the actual safety record at the BP Texas City plant, perhaps I should be wary of BP’s apparent openness. Perhaps, but the optimist in me says, maybe this time, the corporation will learn a lesson from this tragedy. That Lord John Brown, head of BP, is sincere and will insist that workers’ safety forever trump shareholder profits.