Sunday, February 04, 2007

Leaking tanker leaves deadly trail in Hubei

Frontpage headline of the Shanghai Daily, Friday 2 February 2007

A tanker carrying dimethyl sulfate developed a leak in Hubei province, and continued its travels through Hubei and Henan provinces en route to Shandoug province. Dimethyl sulfate is a corrosive chemical used in the manufacture of other organic chemicals. It has a high hazard rating and is considered a probably human carcinogen.

As the truck drove and leaked, it left in its wake at least 127 people sickened by the spilled chemicals. One person died, two were in serious condition as of the Friday reporting and the driver was hospitalized.

With a first reaction of “only in China”, I began to wonder how this could happen. With mobile phones far exceeding the number of cars on the road, did no one report the situation to the authorities? Why would the authorities be so slow to respond? In fact, the paper says that after motorists reported the spill in Hubei province, emergency response plans were activated. Officials in Henan province were notified, yet the truck was stopped only when it reached its home province of Shandong. This is not a short journey as you can see from the attached map.

What about the driver? Did he not know? The answer must be that he may not have known right away, but surely learned about the leak during that long drive. So if he knew, why would he continue and not seek help? Perhaps it was one of two reasons – lack of knowledge or fear. The driver may not have had sufficient knowledge of the nature of the chemical he was transporting. He may not have known what options he had in the event of a problem. He may have been afraid of reporting the spill to his company or to the local officials. He may have been afraid of losing his job. He may have been afraid of blame.

An extreme case, perhaps, but I wonder how often we neglect to empower those around us with knowledge and options. Raising a concern is welcomed in a few companies, organizations and homes. Knowledge is widely shared. All are educated in their roles, the hazards, and the choices. In other organizations, everyone has only the information needed to do their job – assuming that nothing goes wrong.

Have you given all around you the knowledge, options and permission that they need to cover all outcomes? Or is there a leaking tanker in your future?

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