How Should the Supply Chain React to the Oakland Tragedy?
Eye-witnesses said that it was “like a fireball that was moving” and two men were charged with manslaughter. The Oakland warehouse fire was a catastrophe that seemed unprecedented. However, sadly, it was not.
After six months of speculation and investigation, the courts have decided that the warehouse fire — while accidental— could have been prevented. Gross negligence from the two owners led to a devastating fire that trapped its victims. What was predicted at the time has turned out to be more or less accurate: that most of the fire exits were either blocked or inefficient. The items being stored in the warehouse and the way in which they were stored were a fire hazard. The owner did not take health and safety or the upkeep of the building seriously.
The Lessons for Warehouse Owners
While it seems like a pretty cut-and-dry case, the matter of what to do next is quite complicated. The Ghost Ship, the name given to the warehouse in Oakland, was an art space and living space for the working poor and bohemians alike that was being illegally occupied. In response to the tragedy, a crackdown on similar warehouses has been praised by some. Others, though, are less pleased.
Yes, it is true that, had that warehouse not been occupied, the fire wouldn’t have started and 36 people wouldn’t have died. Yet kicking people out of warehouses like that will only force them to find accommodations elsewhere in even less safe warehouses. Many of the victims of the fire either lived at the Ghost Ship or lived in similar accommodation due to the high rents in the Bay Area.
Warehouse safety isn’t a matter of bulldozing your way through the problem with simple, one-off solutions. Shutting down warehouses like this across the US would be the wrong response. Instead, local governments need to be allowed to make these sorts of accommodations safe with regular inspections.
“Regular” is the keyword here. When the warehouse was first occupied or built, it may have been safe. However, safety isn’t a one-time thing; it’s a continued commitment. When a warehouse is allowed to go uninspected for a long enough period — either through the fault of the owner or because of lack of government oversight — something will eventually have to give.
There is a reason that Canada, the US, Australia, the UK, Ireland, and the EU all recommend regular warehouse safety and racking inspections either from staff, from an expert of some sort, or from a government official.
As well as this, warehouse owners and the supply chain in general need to recognize that what happened in Oakland could happen to any business. It’s easy to look at a tragedy like that and imagine your warehouse or supply chain is safer. While it probably (or hopefully) is, it’s worth remembering that even giants such as Anheuser-Busch wind up making costly mistakes. Their New Jersey warehouse was deemed so dangerous by OSHA that they had to pay out over $150,000.
Progress Is Possible
What is worse than a complacent response to this tragedy is an apathetic one. Throwing up your hands and believing that the problem can’t be solved because it’s too complex means that it won’t be solved. Danger is not so entrenched in any culture that it can’t be dealt with. With a lot of hard work, these warehouses can be made safer without just closing them all down.
A warehouse tragedy in the UK which killed fewer people was enough to instigate lasting change. HSE, the British government board for health and safety, was formed as a direct result of the Flixborough warehouse explosion which cost 28 people their lives. Since 1974, when HSE formed, workplace injuries in the UK have reduced by 77% and workplace fatalities have reduced by 85%. That success can be replicated.
If the federal government, local governments, and warehouse owners can all agree on some kind of change, then we might see some progress in the future. While that’s easier said than done, the alternative is the risk of another tragedy like the one in Oakland.
Justin O’Sullivan is a safety expert who specialises in warehouse safety. His business, Storage Equipment Experts, specialises in racking inspection services for other British and Irish businesses.
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