Robert Bea has an unusual specialty: He studies disasters. As one of the world’s leading experts in catastrophic risk management, the former Shell Oil Co. executive sifts through the wreckage to unravel the chain of events that triggers accidents. The blunt-spoken civil engineer has spent more than a half-century investigating high-profile engineering failures, from the space shuttle Columbia’s horrific end to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil-drilling rig in the Gulf.
A professor emeritus of civil engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, Bea’s disaster autopsy methods — such as looking at the organizational breakdowns that lead to calamities — have been widely adopted. Although policymakers and corporate honchos seek his counsel, sometimes they don’t like what he has to say — witness the flak he took from BP during the Deepwater Horizon probe.
Now in his mid-70s, Bea’s voice is raspier, but his critical faculties are undimmed. On a crisp fall day, he talked with DISCOVER in his comfortable one-story house in Moraga, a leafy suburb east of Berkeley, about what causes catastrophes.
You have said that engineering failures aren’t the chief culprits behind disasters, pointing instead to human and organizational failures — inadequate safety protocols, corporate hierarchies, conflicting egos or just plain laziness. Was there an “aha moment” when this became apparent?
When I was involved in the investigation into the Piper Alpha disaster, when an explosion destroyed an Occidental Petroleum oil-drilling platform in the North Sea, killing 167 men in 1988. The external investigation team that had been hired by Occidental into what caused Piper Alpha found it was a corporate culture that had gone bad, had lost its way.
I was part of that team all the way through the Lord Cullen Commission hearings in London, and I had to listen to one of my friends explain to the Cullen Commission why he and his colleagues had turned off the smoke alarms on the platform because the operating crew was doing a routine maintenance procedure late in the evening. Unfortunately, for over a month, certain alarms had been disabled to prevent unnecessary shutdowns on the rig — in some cases as a response to practical jokes. But turning off the alarms was one of the reasons they got caught by surprise.
Ironically, two years before, I was brought in to advise Occidental on risk management for Piper Alpha because they were having gas releases, pipes were leaking. Of course, you didn’t have to be very smart to say, “Yeah, we’ve got a problem — it’s called rusty pipes. And we’ve got problems with people not doing what they should be doing, and people who don’t understand what’s happening.”
One evening, during the first year of the investigation, I saw spread out on the reception table of the Occidental offices a copy of the London Times newspaper with a great, big, bold headline that said, “Occidental puts profit before safety.”
It had a picture of one of the bandaged, beat-up, horribly scarred survivors from the disaster who was telling this to the newspaper. What this survivor was observing is true. If you don’t have profitability, you don’t have the resources to invest in achieving adequate protection. What the tension is, is having the discipline and the foresight to make those investments before you’re in trouble.
When I came back to Berkeley after the investigation was completed, I realized that for the past 50-some-odd years of my career, I’d been working on 10 percent of the problems. I’d been working on normal engineering things, and 90 percent of the problems are humans and/or organizations.
We often have ample warnings before catastrophes hit, but we tend to ignore them until it’s too late. Why?
The problem is attention span, particularly in this country because we are a pretty young country. Our knowledge of history is very limited. We are extremely blessed. Lots of good things attract our attention. It’s a noisy environment, really noisy. It’s unusual to find people who are comfortable sitting in a room by themselves thinking.
You could say the eruption of Mount St. Helens was certainly painful, but it actually affected relatively few people and then disappeared into that strong noise environment. At that point people say, “Well, it’s never happened to me.
I can’t even remember my parents talking about it, and I’ve got these new things to play with, and they require attention,” like Facebook and Twitter. And suddenly, we have flitted from something that is difficult and painful to think about back to something that is enjoyable.