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Disorder Can Lead to Disaster

It is part of my duty as a businessman, husband and father to stay informed on a variety of subjects, especially changes, innovations and trends in our industry. I recently saw an article on some intriguing research that is not directly related to our industry but offers a theory that I think it would behoove us to adopt.

I am speaking of the ‘Broken Windows Theory’ that first gained prominence in the 1980s when an article by two criminologists, George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, was published in Atlantic Monthly magazine. You may not recognize the name of the theory just as I did not, but, like me, you may recall the results of the theory when the then Mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, applied it to the city’s exploding crime rate.

Simply put, the theory says that going after small infractions first can prevent serious crimes later. It was Kelling’ and Wilson’s contention that people are more likely to commit crimes in neighborhoods that “appear unwanted and uncared for by residents and local authorities.” Kelling said that, “Criminals are emboldened by the lack of social control.”

We can learn from the study…

I’m not implying that there is a lack of social control in our industry but I do think we can institute some small “housekeeping” techniques that will have a big pay off in the future. But first, more of what I read about the theory and how Giuliani gave it legs.

The Kelling/ Wilson study asserted that “perceptions affect reality and that the appearance of disorder begets actual disorder.” The theory’s name came from their writing that “one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares and so breaking more windows costs nothing.” They explained that the best way to fight crime and to save neighborhoods was not to just go after the big stuff and let the little stuff go but to go after both the major and the minor.

Surroundings can spark pride or lack thereof…

This experiment by a Dutch researcher validates the 1980s study and makes the point even more clear. The researcher put a fresh coat of paint on the walls of an alley where people parked their bicycles. He posted a sign for all to see that said “no graffiti.” Then his team put a flyer on every bike and removed all of the trashcans. When the cyclists came to get their bikes, they could take the flyer with them, put it on another bike (also classified as littering) or throw it on the floor. Later the researcher put graffiti on the alley walls and again observed returning cyclists. When the alley was neatly painted only 33% of the bicyclists littered. When the walls were lined with graffiti, 69% littered.

When Mayor Giuliani and then New York City Police Department Commissioner, Bill Bratton, instituted a crackdown on minor offenses like graffiti and aggressive “squeegee men,” they also bore out the validity of the “Broken Windows Theory.” In conjunction with the theory they instituted a statistical method that identified emerging criminal patterns and charted police force performance. The result was a dramatic drop in crimes and misdemeanors too. Soon, New York City was perceived to be a safer place by both inhabitants and visitors. Word quickly spread that the crime rate had been cut in half and tourism grew bringing a revived local economy with it.

As usual, there are some “experts” who are now trying to dispute the theory. But new studies, such as the one I mentioned, by the Dutch researcher are making skeptics eat their words.

Now, to our industry…

What message do we send when there’s an old rusted bicycle sitting in the bike rack near the Coker Unit and there’s sludge around the pump pedestal? What is the perception that we truly value quality and safety when the broken glass on the temperature gauge never gets repaired nor the rag hanging on the pipe rack is never removed?

Industry has inherent dangers. Employee behavior needs to be at its very best especially when working with the processes and equipment in our industry. It is important that we discourage workers from taking short cuts and neglecting their duties.

We all need to pay more attention to our “broken windows.” Walt Disney said, “Only clean, clean windows.” By keeping our windows clean and in good repair…we may just help divert disorder and prevent disaster.


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Posted by: Whitney Strickland