Chemical safety starts in classroom

Chemical engineering education and safety continues to develop as groups are coming together to promote awareness and prevent potentially deadly accidents from occuring.


ISS SourceIt was just over six years ago when four people died, and 13 others ended up hospitalized after an explosion from the production of a gasoline additive, methylcyclopentadienyl manganese tricarbonyl, at T2 Laboratories Inc. in Jacksonville, Fla.

Catastrophes such as that December 19, 2007 incident continue to emphasize the need to further improve U.S. chemical engineering education.

That’s the purpose behind a program from the Chemical Safety Board (CSB), Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc. (ABET) and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) to build criteria for including more information about reactive chemical safety in chemical engineering university curriculums.

That was the idea behind a Wednesday AIChe webinar by Thomas Spicer, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Arkansas, and Kimberly Ogden, professor of chemical and environmental engineering at the University of Arizona.

The big question surrounding how to meet chemical engineering and safety requirements in the classroom is: Why doesn’t ABET just tell us what to do? “What we have to discern is how other departments have dealt with the issue, what the common problems are, and decide on some solutions,” Spicer said. The key is to find common ground about how to comply, using common sense, rather than just following a set of rules, which is only the first step.” Instead of having a rules-based approach to safety education, Spicer emphasized the need for a culture-based approach. “This makes the effort sustainable,” he said, because “culture is about what you do without even thinking about it, such as putting clothes on first thing in the morning before you leave the house. That’s what we hope people will seek regarding safety education.” The key is to make sure graduates understand the concept of inherently safer design.

To instill that safety culture, Ogden said you have to do things that go beyond legal requirements for lab safety before students go into the lab. One example from the University of Arizona is an online course of rules and regulations before they can start in the lab. Some are using a job-safety assessment. Ogden’s team starts at a sophomore level for reactor design, using the Safety and Chemical Engineering Education (SAChE) module.

It’s also important to understand regulations of chemical hazards. How do you read a material safety data sheet in looking at chemical hazards? “We start doing distillation, using more chemicals as opposed to just heat exchange, hitting the hardest in the senior year,” Ogden said. “We also start job-safety assessment, taken from Michigan Tech’s model. We integrate a variety of SAChE modules related to inherently safer designs and reactors. There is a SAChE dust explosion module as well. We do a what-if analysis, a hazard operation analysis, and a lab-safety review of a research lab,” she said.

Other requirements in the curriculum include drawing a diagram at a P&ID level for process equipment. Students also draw laboratory floor plans and figure out equipment specifications so they understand maximum temperatures and pressures they’re working with. One example is a diagram of acid-based reactions, safety exits, and showers, which is important because it helps the student understand their space and how what they are doing affects the rest of the people around them.

Students also do a hazards and operability review, which is part of the senior capstone design project. “When they look at their process flow diagram, they try to understand variations in temperature and pressure, what can cause them, and how what is happening in one piece of equipment can affect downstream,” Ogden said.

“With a heat exchanger, for instance, if you have a low temperature, you might have incomplete reaction someplace else. Maybe check your thermocouples and make sure things are going in at the right ratio or whether there is flow going in the wrong direction. So they think of individual pieces of equipment and how safety is important in the design they are putting together.”

The University of Arkansas offers required courses in chemical process safety atmosphere dispersion, toxicology, engineering ethics, loss statistics, fire and explosion phenomenon, and management of risk, to name a few. “We voted as a faculty years ago to include these as criteria for graduate courses,” Spicer said. “Every two years we go through course outcomes to make sure everyone understands what’s being offered in curriculum and give detail in topics covered. That helps because it allows us to make sure material is covered in a uniform fashion. Also, the content of the course will not change. This works as an effective management approach. The educational experience of undergraduates is uniform.”

Spicer also said his faculty has included which ABET outcomes correspond to these topics. “We can discuss in class the ethical dilemmas associated with case studies, and then have a quiz to see if they’ve actually understood it. This is a good way to provide a written history and pass knowledge along from one person to another,” he said. The idea is, as different people teach the course, there are optional topics in the course as well. You can teach and mold this material to your style.” The SAChe website also discusses how safety subjects can be included in a way that doesn’t depend on who is teaching the course.

In reporting accreditation results, Ogden pointed to the big picture in a series of charts from ABET. If you look at all the programs, including electrical engineering, 76 percent of the programs at the end of the review cycle were re-accredited for general review; 20 percent have to write an interim report, and 2 percent have an interim visit. The actual non-accredited number is quite small,” she said.

Click here For materials to help you get started on a program. Products will soon to be available by course, such as materials and energy, or a mass-heat-transfer course, where you might work on inherently safer design. Faculty members can easily adapt the products to their programs. “You don’t have to do exactly what is on the slide. You can change things to suit your own time constraints or style and personality,” Ogden said. The student safety certificate program is available at the USCSB website. A process safety management e-book by Deborah Grubbe will be available in March 2013.

Click here for more information from the webinar.

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