Saturday, April 30, 2011

BP Safety Awards

Sometimes you see a news story that makes you stop and say "wait, am I reading the Onion?" and when you realize you aren't, you figure, "I bet John Stewart's eyes just lit up, he's got material for a week, easy." A recent news story about how BP's safety people got bonuses and recognition for a year with an exceptional safety record was one of those. What a public relations disaster.

I don't know anything about how they came to the conclusion that they had a better-than-ever safety record for the year. It seems quite possible that, as John Stewart ended up saying, they have some kind of skewed rating system in which the entire Gulf oil spill counts as "one incident" and thus the same as someone cutting his finger -- well, maybe not quite that skewed, but certainly an unrealistic rating system.

But I did find myself thinking, hey, it'd be nice if we actually knew their methodology. More than that, I felt bad for the affected people, at least potentially. I don't know what really happened, and I'm sure we never will. But it's entirely possible that, somewhere in the vast expanses of BP's corporate structure, which employs thousands of people all over the world, there's a group of people who actually, really, did spectacular work this year on safety. But all their efforts and successes, and any attempt at recognition for them, will always be tarnished by the fact that some completely different group of people, who they never met and over whom they have no authority, perhaps on the other side of the world, happen to have really fucked up in an amazingly bad and amazingly public way. If that's what happened, wouldn't you have to feel a little bad for them? I mean, what if it were you, who'd busted your ass trying to improve safety and ended up achieving unprecedented success in your division, only to find the whole thing has to be brushed under the carpet because of someone ten thousand miles away who has nothing to do with you other than having the same logo on your letterhead?

Even if that's really what happened, even if the people who got this recognition actually did deserve a pat on the back (and I'm by no means saying that's the case, just that it could be), it was a colossally stupid blunder for BP to let their recognition become a public matter. Then again, the only really safe way to make sure it didn't become the public relations debacle it became is to not do it; anything strictly-internal still can come out. Alternately they could have tried to be explicit about justifying it, but really, would that have had the slightest chance of working? No. So ultimately, their only safe choice would be to deny those people any recognition.

I suppose injustices like this happen all the time. I know that there've been times at my office where, even though we're a small shop and out of the public eye, someone deserved recognition that they couldn't get because of how it would look because of something that someone wholly unrelated had done. In a huge international corporation it seems almost inevitable that it's going to happen more. C'est la vie.

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