Whenever something bad and newsworthy happens to a facility that resembles your facility, it’s time to communicate with your stakeholders.
When I started drafting this article in mid-June 2017, the news was full of stories about London’s deadly June 14 Grenfell Tower fire. While much is still unknown about the fire’s causes, it may have spread so quickly up 24 floors because recently added exterior cladding was not fire-resistant. More expensive fire-resistant cladding would have been required in the U.S. and some other countries, but apparently wasn’t required in the U.K. and wasn’t used when Grenfell Tower was refurbished.
Imagine you lived in an apartment building anywhere in the world that has the same or similar cladding. You would immediately want to find out whether your home faces the same fire risk as Grenfell Tower. Knowing that, what, if anything, should apartment managements have said to their residents about the Grenfell Tower fire?
I don’t know how many apartment managements put out some sort of announcement about their cladding in the wake of the fire. In a brief Internet search I failed to find any such announcements.
I did find news stories with titles like “London fire: Grenfell Tower cladding ‘linked to other fires’” (BBC) and “London tower fire could happen here: Australian buildings cloaked in flammable cladding” (
The Age
). The stories I found quoted safety and fire-fighting experts, government records, planning agency officials, and worried residents. I didn’t see any quotes from apartment managements.
So are apartment managements biding their time, waiting for the results of official investigations before communicating with their residents? Maybe. But my best guess is they have no intention of ever talking to their residents about the Grenfell Tower fire unless local activists force their hand.
In this context, it’s worth noting that the Grenfell Tower fire was not a one-off. The same or similar flammable exterior cladding had been blamed for previous apartment disasters in other cities, including Melbourne and Dubai. I don’t know whether the London authorities responsible for Grenfell Tower took note of these precursors. If so, they didn’t talk to their residents about them … just as apartment managements haven’t talked to their residents about Grenfell Tower.
I think they should talk. And so should you in comparable circumstances. Whenever something bad and newsworthy happens to a facility that resembles your facility, it’s time to communicate with your stakeholders—with employees, neighbors, journalists, and whoever else is likely to notice the resemblance and start to worry.
I’m going to make a case in this article that good risk communication requires talking to your stakeholders about somebody else’s potentially relevant accident—proactively, even if nobody is asking awkward questions and demanding answers. But I have to concede at the outset that this is a minority opinion. I can’t find anything in the literature that agrees with me. In fact, I can’t even find literature that disagrees with me. Apparently it’s such a weird idea that nobody even debates it.
And I fully realize that many readers of
The Synergist
probably identify with the apartment managers on this issue. It’s easy for an industrial hygienist to sympathize with another industrial hygienist employed by an organization where something has gone badly wrong (perhaps because top management ignored the IH professional’s pleas for higher safety standards). It’s hard to feel okay speaking out about what went wrong without knowing the whole backstory.
So it’s a controversial question: When something goes wrong at somebody else’s facility that’s similar to yours, what, if anything, should you tell your stakeholders?
The site of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster on June 15, 2017, the day after the fire. Robert Smith/Alarmy Stock Photo
The key question in your stakeholders’ minds, of course, is whether what happened there could happen here. If you’re going to talk about the accident at all, that’s the question you need to answer.
I see four possible answers. Here they are, expressed as bluntly as I know how:
  1. It couldn’t happen here. We’re safe from that kind of accident for the following reasons…. (Or at least we’re “much safer.” An unqualified “safe” is usually an unwise claim.)
  2. It could have happened here, but it can’t any longer (or at least it’s much less likely now). Based on what we learned from their tragedy, we have already taken the following precautions….
  3. It could happen here. We face the same vulnerability, and we’re learning from their tragedy. We’re planning the following precautions to reduce our risk…. (Or we’re studying their tragedy and still figuring out what precautions to take. We’ll let you know what we decide.)
  4. It could happen here, and there’s not much we can do about it. That sort of tragedy is a rare but known risk in our industry. We’re already taking all the feasible precautions. So were they. They just got extremely unlucky.
You’ll almost certainly want to make your answer less blunt (especially if it’s number four). And early on, when your knowledge of what happened is preliminary and incomplete, you’ll want to make your answer tentative (“judging from what we know so far”). But these are the four basic options. Which answer you give should obviously depend on which is true.
A more nuanced, composite answer is also possible. “There were some things they got wrong that we’re really quite sure we get right. And there were some lessons we learned from their accident that have led to improvements we’re already implementing here. So our risk was lower than theirs to start with and it’s even lower now. But the risk is never zero. That’s why we’re always on our guard, always looking for ways to increase safety.”
Answering the “Could it happen here?” question is the main task when you’re talking to your stakeholders about somebody else’s accident. But there are a few other points worth making:
  • Review your emergency response recommendations for your stakeholders.
  • Acknowledge the reasonableness of your stakeholders’ questions and worries.
  • Express compassion for the victims and their loved ones.
  • Outline some precautions your stakeholders might take on their own.
Explicitly or implicitly, your comments on another organization’s accident will either blame that organization or absolve it. “They did a bunch of things wrong that we do right” casts blame. “It could have happened to anybody” grants absolution. You can try to split the difference, but you can’t really avoid the issue. To one extent or another, the accident either signals a risk and a problem that’s industry-wide (including your facility), or it signals that the other organization is a bad actor that’s unfairly tarnishing your industry’s reputation.
Over my years as a consultant, I periodically found myself, just by chance, working with one company when another company in the same industry had a serious accident. Invariably the accident became a major internal topic of conversation. Sometimes my client expressed genuine shock that such a disaster could have befallen a sister company with a sterling safety reputation within the industry. Other times my client viewed the accident almost as if it were overdue, given that sister company’s abysmal safety reputation within the industry. Everyone knew which companies were the safety leaders and which were accidents waiting to happen. Nobody ever said so publicly.
My clients wanted to have it both ways. They didn’t want to criticize the organization that had the accident, and they didn’t want to admit that even a well-run organization like their own could have such an accident. That’s one reason why they were disinclined to talk publicly about another organization’s accident in the first place.


How resistant you are to responding to your stakeholders’ concerns about somebody else’s accident will depend partly on what an honest response would be. Managements are understandably most comfortable explaining why it couldn’t happen here (number 1 above) and least comfortable explaining why it could and there’s not much they can do to prevent it (number 4).
But as I just noted, claiming such an accident couldn’t happen to your organization amounts to criticizing the organization it happened to. And there are other reasons why it’s tempting to leave the “Could it happen here?” question unanswered, even if your answer is no.
For one thing, horning in on somebody else’s disaster just to point out that “It couldn’t happen here!” is likely to get you accused of schadenfreude (joy in the misfortune of others). And if it’s unlikely to happen here but not impossible, horning in may feel a bit like tempting the gods, virtually asking for an accident. Nor will it make you many friends in the organization whose accident you’re talking about. If you seem to be dancing on their grave, they may see fit to get back at you when something goes wrong in your shop (as something inevitably will, sooner or later).
An even more compelling reason not to comment on somebody else’s accident is the undesirability of attracting attention from journalists, regulators, and activists. If you say it couldn’t happen here, someone may decide to look into whether that’s really so. If you say it could happen here, you’re just asking for hostile scrutiny.
Finally, it’s usually better to avoid attention from the general public as well, especially if an accident has provoked widespread public outrage. Outrage shifts all too easily from one target to another. So unless you have a good reason to get involved, it’s wise to stay away from high-outrage controversies so you won’t become a lightning rod for outrage.
The case for speaking out about somebody else’s accident is especially strong if your stakeholders are already aware of the accident and wondering what you’ve got to say about why it happened, what it taught you, and above all whether you’re vulnerable to something similar.
Of course if your stakeholders are wondering those things aloud, you may have no choice but to go public. More often than not, however, somebody else’s accident is in your stakeholders’ minds but not necessarily on the table for discussion. They’re wondering and maybe they’re worrying, but they’re not actually asking. That’s when I see the most benefit in responding to their unvoiced concerns. This is pretty much a risk communication axiom: If people are concerned, the fact that they’re not (yet) voicing their concerns is a foolish excuse for not addressing those concerns. Raising them yourself is far wiser than waiting and hoping they’ll just go away.
The case for raising the issue yourself is much weaker when you doubt your stakeholders are even aware of that other organization’s accident, or when you doubt they see it as a reason to worry about your organization. If it’s not in their minds already, why put it there? But bear in mind two lessons from my 40-plus years of consulting. First, organizations are far likelier to underestimate how worrisome an issue is to their stakeholders than they are to overestimate it. And second, it does far more harm to let a significant problem fester by ignoring it than to raise the visibility of a non-problem by unnecessarily addressing it.
But let’s assume that your stakeholders are genuinely unaware or unconcerned. So you really don’t have to talk about that other organization’s accident. Should you anyway?
The answer depends on what level of stakeholder concern you consider optimal over the long haul. It may be tempting to answer “as low as possible.” But unrealistically low concern is unsustainable. Eventually there’s a correction. And when it comes, it typically overshoots; people rocket from insufficiently concerned to excessively concerned. The results can be devastating to your organization.
The wiser course is to educate your stakeholders so they understand the risks, are familiar with them, know what precautions are being taken, feel empowered to help decide what additional precautions should be taken, and feel comfortable with the risk management decisions that have been made so far.
In 2013, there was a deadly ammonium nitrate explosion at a fertilizer storage facility in West, Texas. A reporter for a fertilizer industry trade magazine sent me a series of questions, including questions about how fertilizer retailers around the country should handle the disaster. My answers included this advice:
There are only three post-West choices for a fertilizer retailer that sells ammonium nitrate:
  1. Duck the teachable moment. Hide. Pass up the opportunity to frame the issues thoughtfully, and wait to see how your critics will choose to frame them sooner or later.
  2. Misuse the teachable moment. Over-reassure. Tell a one-sided story. Maybe you’ll get away with it for now (or maybe not) – but for sure the moment of truth will be all the more painful when it comes.
  3. Seize the teachable moment. Explain the risks thoughtfully, and launch a mutually respectful dialogue about what precautions are being taken and what additional precautions, if any, might be worth taking.
I thought the third option was the way to go for fertilizer retailers in the wake of the West disaster. I thought it was the way to go for apartment managers after the Grenfell Tower fire. And though mine is a minority position, I think it’s the way to go for you, whenever something bad and newsworthy happens at a facility similar to yours.
is a risk communication consultant and speaker. Much of his work on risk communication can be found on his
. Comments on this and future articles can be sent via email to
Peter M. Sandman
and the
Synergist editorial staff
Talking about Somebody Else’s Accident
Could It Happen Here?