I meet resistance in the form of a hand belonging to my companion. My mentor points and I turn to see a long chain with an orange buoy attached dangling inches from my face. I would have walked right into it. Even though he probably can’t hear me above the noise or past his own earplugs, I shout a thank you to him. As I turn back to him, he has already moved down the pipe alley towards the distillation column. His blue fire retardant clothing and bright blue hard hat stand out among the metallic surroundings. Gingerly, I catch up with him, avoiding the obstacles along the way.
Why am I wandering around an oil refinery on a 100-degree day in Texas?
I am an engineering intern for LyondellBasell, a petrochemical and oil company. Currently, I work at LyondellBasell's refinery in Houston, Texas, one of the largest refineries in the U.S. The 700-acre plant processes 268,000 barrels of heavy-sulfur crude oil every day. I’m spending my time this summer working on crude distillation units where we separate crude oil into valuable products like gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. With so many different processes occurring at the same time, I know that this incident is just one of many experiences in which I’ll be exposed to numerous hazards.
Say "safety," and a dozen scenarios come to mind. Safety is the lifeguard who blows a whistle when kids run at the pool. Safety is a title for scissors with rounded points. Safety is wearing a helmet when you ride your bike. Safety is important.
Chemical plants and refineries especially tend to get a bad rap when it comes to safety. It’s not easy to forget incidents like the recent West, Texas, explosion. I think this would be different if safety were integrated throughout the engineering curriculum. Safety should be an automatic habit by the time students leave university to prevent as many accidents as possible. Accidents are 100 percent preventable.
At the refinery, we have a policy called Goal Zero. This means that our goal is to have zero accidents always, no matter what. It’s ingrained in our work culture. The refinery’s mission, to quote my mentor, is: “to make as much money as possible while being safe.” Goal Zero means not only watching out for yourself, but also watching out for others and helping them to be safe, too. Instead of treating safety mistakes like a punishable act, these mistakes are seen as learning moments, so that next time the individual will be safer.
Sometimes safety feels like that unnecessary extra step, like a hand on the handrail as you walk down the stairs, or following the correct procedure without skipping the unimportant bits, or driving the speed limit. One safe action could avoid an accident. One safe action can mean the difference between someone going home to his or her family or going to the hospital. Safety starts with one person.
Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Well, safety is a habit too. If we teach safety, we will make the world and industrial plants safer places.