The development of new, more complex technologies continues at an accelerating pace. Many of these technologies have risks that have not been seen before or adequately assessed. The risks these technologies incur are frequently exported to developing countries, which lack the infrastructure to support and implement these technologies safely. For manufacturers developing countries offer multinational corporations a competitive cost advantage compared to manufacturing in highly industrialized countries. Companies building plants in developing countries have the benefit of cheap labor and low operating costs. Health and safety regulations are often non-existent or at best inadequate to address the risks new technologies incur. There may be little incentive to promote environmental ethics, safety procedures and community investment. Even if regulations exist firms may find it economically advantageous to avoid compliance and pay penalties rather than to meet statutory safety or environmental requirements.
There have been numerous instances where plants established in developing countries have experienced workplace and community disasters that would be much less likely to have happened in industrialized nations. The 1984 catastrophe at the Union Carbide Plant in Bhopal, the capital city of Madhya Pradesh, in India is a prime example. Recently workers were trapped in manufacturing facilities with inadequate fire suppression or emergency exits as another example. Longer term health issues arise when workers are exposed to hazardous materials without adequate protective gear. Hazardous waste maybe introduced into communities without adequate treatment. The ethical responsibilities of multinational corporations and their senior management, engineers and scientists working for these organizations are frequently ignored.
Often there is a demonstrable difference in design, safety, operating and maintenance procedures when comparing plants in developing countries with similar plants in highly industrialized countries. Developing countries frequently lack community information and emergency response procedures to deal with large-scale disasters. The governments of developing countries may contribute to the risks if highly placed governmental officials are susceptible to corruption to overlook serious health and safety issues.
The following fictitious scenario is based on a composite of real events.
Reduced Safety Standards In Design Specifications
Joe Martin is the Chief Design Engineer for a major multinational corporation. He leads a multidisciplinary team of engineers that have years of experience in the safe design of manufacturing plants in his home country, a highly industrialized nation. Joe and his team have been tasked with the design and startup of a new plant in Ethicana (a fictitious developing country). The plant will manufacture advanced solar cells and complete solar panels using a proprietary nanotechnology process that has never been used before. The decision to build the plant in Ethicana was primarily driven by the lengthy process to get approval by regulatory agencies in his home country. There has been very little research or data collected on the safe use of this new nanotechnology in manufacturing solar cells.
An important issue that Joe and his engineering team face is the design specifications set by management for the new plant have safety standards well below those for similar plants in his home country where the corporate headquarters is located. New computerized safety systems specified for use in his home country have not been incorporated into the design specifications for the new Ethicana plant to reduce costs. Joe’s team has been given a restricted list of approved low-cost instrumentation for the new plant that has a reputation of being unreliable.
Joe and his design team are very concerned. When Joe approaches senior management with his concerns he is sternly rebuffed and told that regulations in Ethicana do not require the same safety and environmental measures as those in his home country. Joe and his team feel very uncomfortable at the reduced design and safety standards for the new plant, but are keenly aware of management's negative reaction to their feelings. They feel compelled to design the plant to meet the specifications management provided. The plant is built accordingly.
Starting up the plant.
Joe’s team immediately becomes aware that even existing safety standards are not being upheld. Nevertheless, the new plant is scheduled for startup. Joe reports back to corporate headquarters that even though he has requested a safety inspection, the regulatory agencies of Ethicana have never inspected the plant and are not enforcing safety and environmental regulations. Joe requests permission from senior management to delay startup until safety inspections have been made. He is told to start up the plant immediately and that safety inspections will occur when local agencies can schedule time for a visit.
During startup, the operating technicians have reported the following problems to Joe and his team:
- Temperature and pressure gauges are unreliable and are frequently ignored.
- Process waste chemical volumes are exceeding the recommended capacity of the holding tank.
- The reserve waste storage tank is averaging 70% full and occasionally overflows.
- The refrigeration unit that keeps potentially explosive chemicals at low temperatures shuts down intermittently and requires manual restarting.
- The gas scrubber, which is designed capture flammable gases escaping from the process, has been shut down due to an electrical problem. Escaping gases are being routed to the flare tower.
- The flare tower – which is designed to burn off flammable gases escaping from the scrubber -- has a defective automatic igniter. Periodically when the flame is blown out by high winds it does not re-ignite. An unknown quantity of unburned flammable gas containing nanoparticles escapes to the atmosphere until the flame is manually ignited.
- The water curtain -- which should capture any process gas containing nano-particles in the works area – lacks adequate volume. Process gas containing nano-particles escapes into the worker’s operating area.
- The warning system for the local community in the event of a plant emergency has never been tested and is not known whether it is operable.
- Recent nationalization policies of the Ethicana government have resulted in the premature replacement of members of Joe’s team of experienced engineers with less knowledgeable local citizens. Due to training cutbacks, most replacement technicians at the plant are poorly trained, inexperienced and have little understanding of the manufacturing process. This has resulted in several accidents during operation exposing workers to hazardous materials including nano-particles whose long-term health effects are unknown.
Corporate Response to Safety Concerns
Joe reported his concerns to senior management at corporate headquarters and requested that the Ethicana plant operations be suspended until the faulty equipment, safety and operational issues are addressed. To make his point Joe tells senior management that this is a disaster waiting to happen and that if nothing is done he will be compelled to file a report with the Ethicana Worker Safety and Environmental Protection Agency. Senior management tells him to keep the plant in operation at all cost. He is told that ethics and morals have no role in operating a manufacturing facility profitably.
Out of frustration Joe reported his immediate supervisor to the senior vice president for corporate operations regarding potential risks to persons living near the plant. He is told that there are no regulations in Ethicana requiring the communication of risks to the local population living near the plant. Nothing is done to inform the surrounding community of any potential risks.
Because Joe and many of his team lived in the local community during their assignment in Ethicana they are aware that there are no emergency response plans to cope with any events at the plant that could have a negative impact the local community. Joe knows that there is an inadequate supply of water and electricity which could affect the operation of safety equipment currently installed at the plant in the event of an emergency.
Joe is quietly replaced by a local citizen as the plant manager and transferred back to corporate headquarters. Joe receives a less than favorable performance evaluation from his supervisor for his work on the Ethicana project. The rest of Joe’s engineering team is replaced by local citizens and the team is transferred back to corporate headquarters. To add to Joe’s frustration, he finds out from an article in an Ethicana newspaper that the new Ethicana plant manager is the brother in law of the mayor of the city where the plant is located. The new plant manager's industrial experience is limited to vehicle maintenance for the city where the plant is located.
Responsibility of the Governments of Industrialized and Developing Nations
Currently, international law does not involve itself in industrial hazards, pollution or regulating multinational corporations in general. Any disaster that results will be litigated in the country where the plant operates. The legal systems of most developing countries lack experience in dealing with multinational corporations or the consequences of a major disaster resulting from poorly designed and operated plants outsourced from highly industrialized countries.
As you read and analyze this case study, your reflective comments are requested on all of the following:
- Who are the stakeholders, and how are they impacted both positively and negatively?
- What knowledge and skills are needed to implement sophisticated, appropriate and workable solutions to the complex global problems facing the world today?
- What interdisciplinary perspectives would help identify innovative and non-obvious solutions?
- What insights can you articulate, based on your culture and other cultures with which you are familiar, to help understand your worldview and enable greater civic engagement?
- What is your position on the right thing(s) to do?
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