Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background
Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background

Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background

Khalid Elhassan - December 8, 2021

Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background
Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant. Imgur

4. A Business Whose Negligence Caused a Catastrophe

Like most days at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, little stood out about December 2nd, 1984, to differentiate it from other days. That night, however, the plant leaked roughly forty tons of a highly poisonous gas called methyl isocyanate (MIC), along with other toxic airborne substances. It was one of history’s worst industrial accidents. The plant was located in a densely-populated area and surrounded by shanty towns. Over 600,000 people suffered from exposure to the lethal cloud. Thousands perished, and thousands more suffered permanent disabilities or were otherwise seriously injured.

It came to be known as the Bhopal Disaster. What took the catastrophe from the realm of industrial accident to one of sheer corporate evil was the callousness exhibited by Union Carbide before, during, and after the event. As seen below, the plant had a history of poor safety practices and near misses. The alarm had been raised for years but was ignored. The business had even turned down a request from local management for protective measures that would have averted the leak because it deemed such measures to be too expensive.

Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background
A labor union protest against Union Carbide in India. The Indian Express

3. A Disaster Waiting to Happen

In 1969, Union Carbide built a plant in Bhopal to produce carbaryl, a pesticide that is sold under the brand name Sevin, and for which methyl isocyanate (MIC) was a key component. MIC is a highly toxic irritant, and is extremely hazardous to humans. Other manufacturers eventually switched to other processes to produce carbaryl that did not require the use of the highly dangerous MIC. Not so Union Carbide, which made the business decision to stick with MIC at its Bhopal plant because it was cheaper.

Union Carbide also cut corners in the maintenance of the MIC storage tanks and pipes at the Bhopal plant in order to save money. There were numerous leaks over the years, in which dozens of workers were killed or injured. By early December 1984, the plant was a disaster waiting to happen. Pipes and valves were corroded, one of three MIC storage tanks was out of commission, most safety systems were out of order, and special vents to scrub poison gasses did not work.

Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background
Rajkumar Keswani. Hindi News

2. A Plucky Journalist Raised the Alarm for Years but Was Ignored

Indian journalist Rajkumar Keswani began to investigate the safety protocols and procedures at Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant in 1981 after a friend died there in an industrial accident. Helped by whistle blowers, he examined that and earlier mishaps and discovered that things were even worse than they looked. There had numerous screw-ups in which only dumb luck averted catastrophe. In one incident, a gas leak forced thousands of nearby residents to flee their homes in terror. In an internal telex exchange, Union Carbide’s Indian manager sought better pipe coating from the parent company in America. In one of the more evil replies in corporate history, he was told that it would be too expensive.

After a nine-month investigation, Keswani published the first of a series of newspaper articles that ran from 1982 to 1984. In them, he detailed dismal safety standards at the plant and raised the alarm about a potential catastrophe. With headlines such as “Bhopal Sitting on the Brink of a Volcano“; “Save Please, Save this City“; and “If You Don’t Understand, You All Shall be Wiped Out“, Keswani’s articles left little doubt about the seriousness of the situation. Unfortunately, like a modern Cassandra, his warnings were ignored. Then, on the night of December 2nd, 1984, the catastrophe he had spent years warning about occurred.

Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background
Victims of the Bhopal Disaster and their relatives in 2006, demand the extradition of Warren Anderson, Union Carbide’s CEO back in 1984. Wikimedia

1. A Business Decision to Skimp on Safety to Cut Costs Exposed 600,000 People to Poison Gas

The predictable catastrophe at Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant began at around 11 PM on December 2nd, 1984. Employees noticed that pressure inside one of the MIC tanks had increased from the normal 2 psi to 10 psi. Half an hour later, the effects of gas leakage were detected. At 11:45, a leaking pipe was spotted. In the meantime, the pressure in the MIC tank continued to rise. By 12:40 AM, it had reached 55 psi and began to vent toxic gas into the atmosphere. Within two hours, over 40 tons of MIC had been released and were blown into Bhopal.

The methyl isocyanate stayed low to the ground, burned the eyes of victims, made them nauseous, and killed many. Corporate callousness and the business decision to skimp on safety resulted in about 600,000 people harmed by MIC. 8000 perished within two weeks, and another 8000 died later. About 40,000 suffered serious injuries, and 4000 were permanently disabled. In 1989, Union Carbide paid the equivalent of U$ 875 million in 2021 dollars to settle litigation. It was less than U$ 1500 per victim, or less than $15,000 for each of those seriously injured, permanently disabled, or killed.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Airships Net – DELAG: The World’s First Airline

Atlantic, The, December 2nd, 2014 – Bhopal: the World’s Worst Industrial Disaster, 30 Years Later

Beatles Bible – The Beatles Audition for Decca Records

Burr, Chandler – The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession (2004)

Business Insider Australia, December 13th, 2013 – This is the Safe That Killed Whiskey Distiller Jack Daniel

Cheat Sheet – Jimi Hendrix Got Turned Down by the Same Decca Producer Who Turned Down the Beatles

Cracked – 4 Business Pioneers Who Changed the World for the Worse

Encyclopedia Britannica – The Coca-Cola Company

Guardian, The, August 28th, 2001 – Jane Greer

Hanes, William Travis, and Sanello, Frank – Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another (2004)

History Collection – 11 Company Towns Founded by Corporations

Independent, The, February 12th, 2012 – The Man Who Rejected The Beatles

Los Angeles Times, August 28th, 2001 – Jane Greer, Star of Film Noir ‘Out of the Past’

Mazzeo, Tilar J. – The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume (2010)

McDermott, John – Hendrix: Setting the Record Straight (1992)

Motley Fool – How Coke Helped Create Pepsi, and Other Historic Market Moments

New York Post, March 7th, 2016 – BMW Admits ‘Regret’ Over Using Nazi Slave Labor During WWII

New York Times, December 11th, 1984 – Indian Journalist Offered Warning

Platt, Stephen R. – Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age (2018)

Star Ledger, May 6th, 2012 – The Hindenburg 75 Years Later: Memories Time Cannot Erase

Vaughan, Hal – Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War (2012)

Wikipedia – Bhopal Disaster

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