Every chemical engineer knows that seemingly small mistakes or temporary lapses in judgment can have serious consequences.
Young professionals can be especially prone to error because we lack industrial experience, yet want to prove ourselves professionally. Many of us enter the workplace with a sense of infallibility, secure that our college education has endowed us with the ability to think quickly and rationally, and jump into any team, plant, or project. Eventually we learn that maintaining a sense of vulnerability is key to avoiding process safety incidents.
For some of us, the opposite is true — we believe that, as rookies, we don’t have the prerogative to speak up if we feel that something is unsafe. Overcoming our fear of confrontation and learning how to identify and speak up about unsafe practices or conditions will not only make us better engineers, it may save lives.
In this column, four experienced, successful chemical engineers share some mistakes that they made at the start of their careers, to show how even the most rational decisions and actions can result in process safety incidents and near misses. How can you apply the lessons learned from these incidents in your career?
Lesson #1: What works in the lab won’t always work in the plant
Kathleen Kas, P.E.,
Process Safety Expertise Leader,
The Dow Chemical Company
At a previous employer, a new agricultural intermediate process was running at a scale of 6,000 gal for the first time. The process included a water wash of the organic phase, followed by a phase separation to remove salts from the batch.
Unfortunately, the batch had formed an emulsion and the phases would not separate. This problem had occurred a few times in the lab, and had been remedied by the addition of potassium carbonate salts, which increased the density of the aqueous phase and broke the emulsion. I took a sample from the commercial vessel, brought it to the plant lab, and added potassium carbonate, and the phases separated.
The issue occurred during the midnight shift, when experienced staff members were not available and resources were limited. I decided to try the solution that had worked so well in the lab to break the emulsion so that the batch could proceed. I instructed the operator to open the manway of the vessel and add several bags of potassium carbonate.
Shortly after the material was added, the batch began to swell and material started to “burp” out of the top of the vessel. The operating staff retreated to a safe distance as...
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