Several years ago, I had dinner with an EHS professional who worked for an oil company. I was fascinated by his job, because the hazards his employees faced were really different than those of most safety professionals.
For example, every six months or so, a group of South American natives at one of their remote locations took the facility hostage by blocking the entrances and exits. Negotiations would ensue and they would agree to a ransom price of a few pallets of socks and peanut butter. The funniest story he told me occurred at one of their northern-most locations. Polar bears broke into the infirmary – which was stocked much like a small hospital – and destroyed equipment and furniture, including the drug cabinet. Apparently, polar bears like morphine … who knew? The EHS professional on site not only had to worry about repairing and replacing the equipment and medical supplies, he had to wait for the bears to recover from their drug-induced stupor and leave the building.
I thought I had heard it all until a Bronx Zoo visitor, allegedly claiming he wanted to “be one with the tiger,” jumped from the zoo’s monorail into the tiger enclosure. The 17-foot drop nearly killed him; fortunately, the tigers didn’t finish the job, though one did try to drag him off, and zoo employees were able to rescue him after about 10 minutes.
I don’t write a lot about zoo safety. And usually when I do write about it, it’s because a zoo employee was injured or killed. So imagine my surprise last Sunday when a voicemail informed me that the caller was with the Wall Street Journal and he wanted to discuss zoo safety and risk management. Specifically, could the Bronx Zoo have done anything differently to prevent David Villalobos from jumping off the train and into the tiger enclosure?
I called the reporter back immediately. I have to make a lot of phone calls for news stories and I always joke, “If I said I was from the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, I bet they’d call me back right away!” I proved my own point.
While I was talking to him, I realized the easy answer would be that Villalobos was mentally ill and it’s difficult for sane people to follow the thought process of someone who does not think rationally. How can a risk manager take into account the crazy things that people might do? ("Visitors Back at Bronx Zoo")
But in reality, how is this situation different than any other place of business or manufacturing facility? People do “crazy” things all the time at work. My editorial in our upcoming October issue talks about a crazy stunt my dad pulled at work. It’s the responsibility of the EHS professional and/or the risk manager to anticipate every possible scenario and guard against negative consequences.
Obviously, Villalobos was able to get out of the monorail and leap down into the tiger enclosure. Were his actions dangerous and crazy and completely unexpected? Absolutely. Was this preventable? I have to say yes.
Most emergency response drills reflect worst-case scenarios: planes crashing into chemical plants, trains full of hazardous materials derailing, nuclear meltdowns. A worst case scenario at a zoo had to include animals getting loose or visitors climbing or falling into animal enclosures.
You can’t anticipate crazy, but you can anticipate worst-case scenarios. It’s always best to plan for the worst and be pleasantly surprised, than to ignore a potential threat and have to read the comments of armchair quarterbacks like me in the Wall Street Journal.