Sample Case Study on The Buffalo Creek Disaster

The Buffalo Creek Disaster   

A critical aspect of ethics and corporate social responsibility is the company’s obligation to compensate victims of a disaster for any harm caused. In law, compensatory justice is recognized as a fundamental principle of ethics, sustainability, and corporate social responsibility. Most disasters occur as a result of failure of companies to address risks that it creates or are within their property. According to Harvard Business Review on Corporate Ethics, the international disaster law places obligations on corporations of preventing disasters especially where the company has full control over known risks and hazards. Organizations have the legal duty of safeguarding human rights where they have knowledge of possible risks that may lead to a disaster. In the recent past for instance, corporate social responsibility and business ethics movements have been formed in response to the increasing corporate environmental violations. This paper explores the Buffalo Creek disaster, business ethical principles, corporate responsibility to minimize disasters as well as responding when disaster occurs in the context of human rights, and corporate social responsibility.

Corporations are driven by ethical values. Empirically, not all the values are ethical in nature; some are technical while others are prudential. While the technical values express the skilled operation of an organization, prudential values express the urgency to evade legal actions or repercussions. The Buffalo Creek disaster is acknowledged as one of the historical landmark case because of its attempt to successfully compensate a community from a disaster. It occurred in 1972 in Virginia where one hundred and twenty five people died after the collapse of a coal waste dam (Schwartz-Barcott 34). Buffalo Creek disaster caused injuries, trauma as well as massive loss of properties. Furthermore, the disaster led to displacement of people from their indigenous residence. The case enlightens people with respect to psychological trauma caused collectively to a community.

Generally, the duty to human rights belongs to the state and these obligations are not easily transferable. However, although the state holds the primary duty to human rights, the law requires corporations to avoid activities that infringe individual’s basic human rights. Corporations have a legal duty to protect the community residing within a particular sphere of influence. Businesses have the obligation to protect individuals who have associative ties with the corporation including local residence or employment (Griseri and Nina 94). The United Nations guiding regulations on corporations and individual human rights not only include the duty to avoid particular actions but also place a responsively of taking actions supporting positive human rights. As an ethical principle, the UN encourages corporations to publish human rights policy statement that is accessible to all stakeholders. The policy statement should also identify possible hazards that may occur in the company. Additionally, corporations need to identify a department and assign individuals with the responsibility of enforcing human rights. The department should be fully equipped with financial and human resources to enable it address issues related to human rights.

Disasters take place because actors who have the capacity to manage such hazards ignore them. Before a disaster takes place, companies have the obligation of undertaking due diligence in order to understand how particular actions may lead to the rise of a disaster. Corporations are required to flag possible hazards that are associated with their business, industry and site as well as identifying potential social, environmental and other kinds of hazards that could trigger the occurrence of a disaster. The Buffalo Creek disaster is an excellent case study that demonstrates corporations overall duty of preventing disasters. Through this case, it is clear that the extent of corporate duty depends on hazards that the corporation is exposed to.  In the Buffalo Creek disaster for instance, little was done to prevent the tailings dam from blowing. In addition, it was discovered that suggestions to prevent the dam tailings from turning into a full blown disaster were ignored for a long time (Vogel 18). No disaster audit had been conducted to ensure due diligence and protection of human rights. As a result of the corporation’s failure to mitigate known hazards of the dam, people died while others were internally displaced.

Corporate ethical responsibility for preventing disaster is sensible as it holds parties with power and ability to make operational changes accountable. Where it is impossible to make changes, United Nations ethical principles requires contingency plans to be put in place for protecting individuals who live within the company’s sphere (Schwartz-Barcott 22). Although the state remain the principal fiduciary for enforces human rights, it becomes hard to ensure that a company’s hazards have been addressed adequately for instance beyond making legislations as well as inspections. Corporations need to examine their duty to the society as human rights duties instead of voluntary CSR programs in order to prioritize disaster mitigation by reducing corporation’s exposure to possible hazards.

It is ethically wrong to be found guilty of negligence of proper maintenance of industrial facilities. It ruins the reputation of a corporation and the general public perceives badly such a corporation. Corporations held liable for violating human right to life, food and health in the past have experienced difficulties in trying to reverse the perception from the general public. Publicly owned corporations found guilty of violating human rights raise questions of its ability to even prevent financial losses (Vogel 26). The state also places legal obligation on corporations situated in disaster zones to be responsive so long as the corporation is not adversely affected by such a disaster and so long as the company will not be rendered bankrupt for utilizing resources at its disposal to provide relief to the victims. Not all corporations have equal capacity to participate in disaster relief. For instance, food distribution or firms manufacturing food have more to provide to the community in times of a disaster compared to a motor vehicle manufacturing company. This implies that the obligation to support victims of a disaster does not require the corporation to assume duties beyond its capacity.

In conclusion, corporate ethics emphasizes on primary responsibility of a company to the shareholders. Corporations have more responsibilities to communities in which they have established business to avoid violating human rights but rather to support fundamental rights of individuals. The obligation to prevent disasters from occurring by reducing hazards leading to disasters emanates from the duty of corporations to respect and support rights of people within their spheres of influence. It is important to forge partnership between the public and the private sectors to mitigate disasters. The basis of such partnerships ought not to be the good will of businesses but the legal obligation of companies to respect and support rights of human beings. Corporations need not to remain under the state, but form formidable partnerships to handle large scale disasters likely to occur in the future.

Works Cited

Griseri, Paul, and Nina Seppala. Business Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility. Australia: South-Western Cengage Learning, 2010.

Schwartz-Barcott, T P. After the Disaster: Re-creating Community and Well-Being at Buffalo Creek Since the Notorious Coal Mining Disaster in 1972. , 2008.

Vogel, David. The Market for Virtue: The Potential and Limits of Corporate Social Responsibility. Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution Press, 2005.

Harvard Business Review on Corporate Ethics. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2003.