Making safety second nature in Qatar
7 May 2014
A tragic accident half a world away has led to a new culture of process safety in Qatar, led by one Texas A&M chemical engineering professor and his colleagues at Texas A&M University at Qatar.
Chemicals are important in today’s world, in every advanced industry. Safe use of these chemicals makes for healthy economies and a higher standard of living, but unsafe use threatens lives and businesses. Working and living safely with chemicals is the focus of the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center, a part of the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) and one of several TEES centers to have established extensions at Texas A&M at Qatar.
The center was established in 1995 by founding sponsor T. Michael O’Connor, a chemical engineer whose wife Mary Kay — also a chemical engineer — was killed in the Phillips Petroleum plant explosion in Pasadena, Texas, in October 1989. O’Connor said that he and Mary Kay were never taught that process safety was part of their jobs as chemical engineers, and it wasn’t until after her death that he realized how integral process safety is to the work.
“No chemical engineer should ever say, ‘Process safety isn’t part of my job,’” said Dr. Sam Mannan, the world-renowned process safety expert who has led the center since 1997.
Mannan, the Mike O’Connor Chair in Chemical Engineering in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering at Texas A&M in College Station, said that the center has a clear, overarching vision: Making safety second nature.
The center helps to develop curriculum that integrates fundamental knowledge of how process safety applies to engineers in their jobs. Center researchers work on a variety of topics, from new technologies to management systems to human factors, such as behavioral safety and safety culture. And as part of its outreach aim, center personnel conduct continuing education and training for those who are already working in industry.
“We integrate safety into education and research, and into practice in industry,” Mannan said. “It should be a seamless part of how to do the job at all levels, from design to maintenance.”
Expertise and experience
Mannan is a classical chemical engineer, he said. He spent about 40 percent of his career in industry, where he saw firsthand how safety fits into every aspect of plant operation and learned the importance of safety.
A professional engineer and certified safety professional, Mannan is a fellow of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and a member of the American Society of Safety Engineers, International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration and National Fire Protection Association. But in addition to his professional honors and achievements, Mannan said he has been fortunate to work on some interesting and challenging projects, such as the investigation into the Columbia Shuttle disaster in 2003-2004.
“What caused the space shuttle Columbia to explode was a technical failure,” he said. “Foam insulation broke loose and struck the shuttle during liftoff. It turned out to have caused enough damage that the heat from re-entry caused the shuttle to burn and then disintegrate.
“My contribution to the investigation, though, was the issue of safety culture at NASA. The lack of an effective safety culture created silos in the organization in which these accidents can happen. The result is that safety culture within an organization is now seen as a big issue in terms of process safety.”
Mannan has also testified before the U.S. Congress on several occasions, speaking on how to protect the country’s chemical infrastructure from terrorism and the inherent safety issues in manufacturing and implementation. In June 2013, Mannan testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Pubic Works in Washington, D.C. He gave testimony on the oversight of federal risk management and emergency planning programs to prevent and address chemical threats, including the events that led to explosions in West, Texas, in April and Geismar, La., in June.
“We need to develop better prevention and emergency response to incidents,” he said. “Not just in the United States, but everywhere. These are teaching opportunities. We know how industry operates, and we can provide input to governments at the highest levels.”
The center is expanding into even more areas now, including the offshore industry and energy safety, which is a big issue. In fact the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center was recently selected to lead the $5 million Ocean Energy Safety Institute, which will provide a forum for dialogue, shared learning and cooperative research among academia, government, industry and other non-government organizations in offshore-related technologies and activities that help ensure environmentally safe and responsible offshore operations.
Creating a culture of process safety in Qatar
In Qatar, Mannan works closely with chemical engineering assistant professor Dr. Luc Vechot, who is managing director of the center’s extension here. Together the two are leading a team of faculty, researchers and students who are working to make safety second nature in Qatar.
“The first time the center did any sort of activity here in Qatar was eight years ago,” Mannan said. “I did a seminar for industry, a two-day short course that had about 25 to 30 attendees. But we realized that we had to develop a presence here so that industry and the government could see that we were here for the duration, not just a single short course.”
So with the blessing of Texas A&M at Qatar’s highest-level administrators, Texas A&M at Qatar and TEES signed a memorandum of understanding in March 2013 to bring a branch of the College Station-based TEES center here.
Mannan said word of mouth helped the effort pick up steam, with local industry and even the Ministry of Energy and Industry’s His Excellency Dr. Mohamed bin Saleh al Sada asking for meetings and more information.
“H.E. al Sada was interested to know what the center would do in Qatar,” Mannan said. “We were told that we would have 15 minutes, but he spent almost 90 minutes listening to us.”
The plan is simple: To bring expertise and competence into process safety. Mannan said there is a real need here with regard to helping industry combine sustainability and growth, and that’s where the Qatar extension’s value lies.
And eight years later, the intent of having the center’s Qatar extension and the symposium serving as a crossroad between local industry and academia is really paying off — most notably with its premier event, the Qatar Process Safety Symposium (QPSS), which recently held its fifth gathering. Mannan said QPSS had 60 to 70 attendees in it inaugural year, but this year almost 200 people attended the two-day workshop that featured high-quality papers and experienced, well-known speakers, with quite a few speakers from local industry.
Next up for the center, both in Texas and in Qatar is continuing to increase its footprint, continuing its multidisciplinary approach of working with civil engineers, mechanical engineers and petroleum engineers, and exporting its expertise and knowledge around the world.
“Our center aims to develop local capital and expertise to provide global leadership in the processing industries,” Mannan said. “This center in Qatar is a good example of how that works.”