Friday, May 7, 2010

Were Oil Rig Workers Coerced After the Explosion?

As most of us know by now, on April 20, an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers.  The well in question belongs to BP, but the oil rig was owned by Transocean.  Allegations have now surfaced that, after the surviving workers were rescued from the rig, they were kept at sea for 15 hours and then brought to a hotel where they were asked to sign pre-printed statements indicating whether they witnessed the accident and whether they were injured.  Only after this were they allowed to see their families. 

Workers who have now filed lawsuits against the company are now finding that Transocean will be using those statements against them. The survivors argue that their statements were coerced.  No one but the lawyers and the survivors really know what happened that night.

When we think about a statement being "coerced," we usually imagine some B-movie crime drama.  Bright lights shine in the person's face.  Threats are made.  Perhaps torture is used.  The New Oxford American Dictionary defines "coerce" as:

persuade (an unwilling person) to do something by using force or threats.
It seems unlikely that thumbscrews were literally applied to the oil workers.  It does not appear that anyone is alleging that the workers were threatened if they didn't sign.  So were their statements coerced?

Putting aside the semantics of the word, I think it's safe to say that their statements are not reliable.  One of the things trauma survivors experience is difficulty making decisions and appreciating the consequences of their actions.  Their judgment is impacted.  That's why we routinely tell people not to make life-altering decisions in the days or weeks following an incident.  People shouldn't be deciding whether to quit their job when there's just been a horrible incident at work -- they can't think it through clearly.  People who have just been rescued from an exploding oil rig where 11 of their coworkers have died don't have the cognitive capacity to decide whether to sign something, or even really to assess whether it's true.

In addition to this, Maslow argues that you can't attend to higher order needs until more basic needs are cared for.  In Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the most basic level is physical needs, the second is safety and the third is love/belonging, which includes family.  The evacuated oil workers were, at best, concerned about this third level when they were asked to sign those statements, and probably still pretty concerned for their safety as well.  Problem solving and morality (which would include telling the truth) are on level five, self-actualization.  The workers were in no condition to worry about that.

Were they coerced?  If they thought that signing the statements was the only way to get out of there, then they were.  Otherwise, it's not so clear.  What is clear is that those statements shouldn't hold up in court any more than if the workers had been drugged when they signed them.  What's more, the Transocean lawyers almost certainly knew that.  They were hoping to scare people out of suing.  Apparently, it hasn't worked. 


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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