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Rebecca Cline and Andrea Meluch

Health consequences and key communication processes that emerge during disasters vary by type of disaster. The types of disasters that researchers have most investigated are rapid-onset natural disasters and slowly-evolving human-caused disasters. Three types of communication processes occur in disasters that have implications for health. The first set of communication processes involves the social dynamics of affected communities. Communities that experience natural disasters tend to exhibit an emergent altruistic community; community members join together to support each other in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. In contrast, community conflict is the hallmark of slowly-evolving environmental disasters. That conflict triggers a cascade of social dynamics that infests close personal relationships with interpersonal conflict, stigmatization of victims and advocates, and pressures to avoid open communication (i.e., social constraints) regarding the disaster and its traumatic effects. These dynamics contribute to elevated mental health problems. The second set of communication processes focuses specifically on social support. Supportive communication processes and networks are important resources for coping with ongoing disasters and for mitigating their longer-term mental health effects. Due to differences in community-level social dynamics, patterns of social support evolve differently in natural versus human-caused disasters. Natural disasters are typified by immediate intra-community social support. Community members support each other in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Ultimately this social support is overwhelmed by the disaster’s needs and deteriorates. As a result, communities are largely dependent on internal and external institutional sources to meet community members’ needs. In contrast, slowly-evolving human-caused disasters tend to exhibit the emergence of corrosive communities. In these communities, those most affected by the disasters (those whose health is harmed or who claim other harmful or potentially harmful effects, and those who function as advocates) tend to experience failed or diminished social support. Whereas the community may previously have been altruistic, mutual help either fails to emerge or is withdrawn in the disaster context. Failed social support contributes to the relatively worse mental health consequences of slowly-evolving human-caused disasters when compared to natural disasters. The third set of communication processes relate to institutional responses in disasters. In natural disasters, institutional communication is driven largely by widely disseminated and applied models that are intended to prevent harm and to provide resources to address harm and to reduce further negative consequences to health and well-being. Institutions and their agencies provide resources immediately following the disaster to meet basic human needs and, thereafter, to restore normalcy to the community and thereby protect community members’ physical and mental health. These efforts assume that natural disasters unfold in predictable stages (i.e., preparedness, warning, post-disaster, recovery) and that institutions’ responses should vary according to the stage of the disaster. In contrast, no such response models exist for slowly-evolving human-caused disasters. Moreover, community members experiencing such disasters often encounter what they perceive as institutional failures by both community-based and external responding institutions. Often community institutions (e.g., business, government) are perceived as causing the disaster and/or minimizing it, if not denying its existence or covering it up. As a result, communities experiencing this class of disasters tend to develop substantial distrust for local and responding institutions.


Since the 1990s there has been an increasing interest in knowledge, knowledge management, and the knowledge economy due to recognition of its economic value. Processes of globalization and developments in information and communications technologies have triggered transformations in the ways in which knowledge is shared, produced, and used to the extent that the 21st century was forecasted to be the knowledge century. Organizational learning has also been accepted as critical for organizational performance. A key question that has emerged is how knowledge can be “captured” by organizations. This focus on knowledge and learning demands an engagement with what knowledge means, where it comes from, and how it is affected by and used in different contexts. An inclusive definition is to say that knowledge is acquired theoretical, practical, embodied, and intuitive understandings of a situation. Knowledge is also located socially, geographically, organizationally, and it is specialized; so it is important to examine knowledge in less abstract terms. The specific case engaged with in this article is knowledge in hazardous industry and its role in industrial disaster prevention. In hazardous industries such as oil and gas production, learning and expertise are identified as critical ingredients for disaster prevention. Conversely, a lack of expertise or failure to learn has been implicated in disaster causation. The knowledge needs for major accident risk management are unique. Trial-and-error learning is dangerously inefficient because disasters must be prevented before they occur. The temporal, geographical, and social scale of decisions in complex sociotechnical systems means that this cannot only be a question of an individual’s expertise, but major accident risk management requires that knowledge is shared across a much larger group of people. Put another way, in this context knowledge needs to be collective. Incident reporting systems are a common solution, and organizations and industries as a whole put substantial effort into gathering information about past small failures and their causes in an attempt to learn how to prevent more serious events. However, these systems often fall short of their stated goals. This is because knowledge is not collective by virtue of being collected and stored. Rather, collective knowing is done in the context of social groups and it relies on processes of sensemaking.