THERE are two words that practically every organization — for profit businesses, nonprofits, government organizations and families — need to know and live by: crisis prevention.
Those two words are particularly important for any organization that stores thousands of gallons of chemicals in an aged tank farm just 8,000 feet upstream of a major water treatment facility, or any company that deals with hazardous substances.
As AT&T says in its advertisements for cellular telephone service, "It's not complicated." Crisis prevention involves communicating, planning, implementing a plan. Then repeating. It can be that easy.
If Freedom Industries, whose uncontained chemical leak last week contaminated the water supply for 300,000 people in nine counties, had developed and practiced a crisis prevention program, the company likely still would be a relatively obscure specialty chemicals provider that few had ever heard of.
A program that included the simple task of an employee walking the perimeter of the plant, once every morning and once every evening, checking for anything that might be a problem, could have alerted company officials to a leaking tank and faulty containment wall that allowed some 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol to leave the tank, causing an unknown quantity to enter West Virginia American Water Co.'s water treatment plant downstream in the Elk River.
Better yet, daily walks would have revealed the poor condition of the containment walls designed to prevent a tank failure from flowing into the river, and may have prompted quicker action to replace such a problem.
Like a crisis prevention program, developing a company safety culture is not complicated, but it does take a commitment from management.
The water company itself could have used a better crisis prevention program. It's worth noting that the water company's crisis response — the plan to remediate the problem and return service to customers after the crisis — has been strong. But a prevention program that included regularly assessing threats located upstream — particularly when there are 10 very obvious 35,000 gallon storage tanks just a mile and a half away — could have prevented a big mess.
Many in the business community, political conservatives and the Daily Mail editorial board included, often rail against excessive government regulation. Yet irresponsible operators like Freedom inadvertently become the strongest proponents for more regulation.
Perhaps managers of businesses that operate like Freedom believe they can't afford crisis prevention planning. But as Freedom executives are learning, the lack of a plan — and/or the failure to follow a quality plan — is very expensive.