Fruit flies, canaries, wine and chemical hazards (Day 165)

CanaryIt is less than 30 years since the canary was made ‘redundant’ in UK coal mines. For over 80 years, two canaries were employed by each coal pit to help detect carbon monoxide.

The science of smell and odours is of great importance to the chemical and process industries.

We have duties to ensure outdoor odours are measured, detected and abated and methods are becoming more sophisticated.

There has also been work to create artificial noses and mimic the human sense of smell.

Continue reading Fruit flies, canaries, wine and chemical hazards (Day 165)

Remember, remember the 5th of November (Day 160)

FirecworksIn two days time, many people across the UK will be heading outdoors to enjoy an annual festival called ‘Bonfire Night’, which celebrates the failed attempt by Guy Fawkes and others to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605.

It is a nervous time, leading up to, and on the night for the rescue services with fireworks used widely. Accidents inevitably happen.

In the chemical and process industries, the fireworks industry is one of the most hazardous to work in.

In 2013, there were eight reported accidents in firework factories worldwide including China (3), India (2), Italy, Canada and Vietnam killing at least 48 people and injuring over a hundred.

The worst incident in Northern Vietnam’s Phú Tho Province killed 26 people and damaged an estimated 1,300 households in a three kilometre blast radius.

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The red mud challenge (Day 156)

Drinks cans Image by Radu Bercan / Shutterstock.comAluminium is everywhere. In fact, it’s the third most abundant element on planet earth after oxygen and silicon.

Its low density and strength, coupled with its outstanding resistance to corrosion, make it one of the most useful metals we have.

Aluminium and its alloys are essential to the aerospace and construction industries where it finds widespread use as a structural material.

Our homes wouldn’t be the same without Aluminium either. Modern doors and window frames are commonly constructed from PVC coated aluminium. Many kitchen utensils are made from aluminium as are the cans that contain beer and soft drinks.

And where would we be without that handy roll of ‘tin’ foil, which is of course made from – you’ve guessed it; aluminium.

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Honesty and integrity (Day 139)

Whistleblowing is a term that causes concern for business, governments and individuals. It can have severe legal and corporate implications. It undoubtedly affects the future careers of the individuals involved. It also requires courage.

WikiLeaks
Credit: Gil C | Shutterstock.com

In some ways it doesn’t help that there is a media obsession with high profile cases like WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, as well as the case of Edward Snowden, who exposed global surveillance programmes.

Neither case encourages the important role whistleblowing can play. In some sectors, like health, greater attempts are being made to encourage whistleblowing.

In our profession, whistleblowing is especially relevant to lapses in process safety and standards.

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Dispelling some nuclear myths (Day 138)

Solid radioactive waste
Solid radioactive waste

Whenever I talk to chemical engineers, whether members of IChemE or otherwise, within the nuclear industry, there can be no doubt that one of the main issues affecting their work is public perception and understanding.

People do tend to recoil when something is described as radioactive or nuclear, and in part, this is due to images from World War II, and subsequent portrayal in the media.

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When 99.9 per cent just isn’t good enough (Day 108)

99.9%Have you ever wondered why we make mistakes? Well, according to a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, called Joseph T Hallinan, he thinks ‘humans are pre-programmed to make blunders’. He’s even written a book about it called ‘Why We Make Mistakes’.

Hallinan is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who began to shape his theory while researching a story on anaesthetists.

Hallinan discovered they had a mixed safety record, but noted their safety record was vastly improved by a simple change to their equipment that cancelled out human error. The change was the introduction of a valve that could only turn one way to deliver anaesthetic to a patient.

Continue reading When 99.9 per cent just isn’t good enough (Day 108)

The nano-police (Day 102)

Geoffrey Bothun
Geoffrey Bothun – chemical engineer looking at the implications of nanotechnology

In the UK, we’ve been tracking public attitudes to science since 1998.

Some of the central questions in the Public Attitudes to Science survey, by ipsos MORI, is to measure opinions towards ‘pace of change’, how much science is ‘valued’ and ‘trust’.

I’ll be exploring the results of the 2014 survey in more detail in tomorrow’s blog, but today I wanted to look at the issue of trust in relation to nanotechnology.

Some fields of science are more difficult to ‘police’ than others. This is certainly the case for nanotechnology – the creation of materials or processes at the nano-scale – which has attracted concerns about environmental risks that may not become apparent until decades later.

Continue reading The nano-police (Day 102)

A global ring of safety (Day 80)

Step by step, day by day, country by country, something special is happening in the world of process safety. In chemical engineering hubs around the world, process safety is being taken to new levels led by a network of IChemE members.

There are now nearly 70 chemical engineers enrolled or registered as Professional Process Safety Engineers based at strategic locations on five continents.

They are the vanguard and champions of a long-term IChemE initiative to improve safety and give greater recognition to one of the most important – if the not the most important – discipline in the chemical engineering profession.

Locations of Professional Process Safety Engineers
IChemE’s Professional Process Safety Engineers are now located on five continents

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The real guardians of the brand (Day 64)

 

Supermarket aisleIf you ever want to tease your colleagues in the marketing department, tell them they wouldn’t have a brand without chemical engineers.

Chemical engineers provide all the necessary building blocks of a successful brand such as consistency, standardisation, safety, quality and sheer volume.

This is certainly the case in the food industry. Just look what happens when it all goes wrong.

The European horse meat scandal, false advertising of farmed salmon as wild salmon in the US, 1,700 tonnes of manuka honey being produced in New Zealand but 10,000 tonnes being sold globally, meat suppliers in China distributing meat past its expiry date and in Italy the passing off of substandard olive oil as extra virgin; are all examples of where brand consistency has been lost.

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Conflict clean-up (Day 44)

Chemical WeaponsA few weeks ago I blogged about chemical engineers and their role in the production of antibiotics to save lives during the D-Day landings in 1944. Antibiotics are now part of a standard issue battlefield medical first aid kit to help save lives during what is described as a ‘platinum 10 minutes’.

Sadly, there are still around 40 conflicts in the world today. And as we’ve seen in the Middle East and Syria, chemical weapons are still being produced and used in some of those conflicts.

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Educating a safety culture (Day 26)

Burning buildingImprovements in process safety education should never stand still, so it was good to hear from one of IChemE’s members based in the US this week, Deborah Grubbe, who contacted me about the development of some new technical software called The PSM eBook.

The eBook was commissioned by the chemical engineering team at Purdue University in the US. They decided to introduce process safety management more formally into the undergraduate curriculum.

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Tough Gloves (Day 22)

Gloves and needleThere are lots of industries where protective clothing is a necessity. Although technology makes a contribution and advancements have been made, such Kevlar, by and large, some of the protection and the technology used seems to be stuck in a bygone era.

Chain mail is still used as protection in meat processing factories. Many boots still have metal toe caps. Plastic hard hats have been around for over 60 years. Surgical gloves are made from simple polymers… or are they?

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Flixborough remembered (Day 5)

Forty years ago, today, the explosion at the Flixborough Nypro Chemicals site near Scunthorpe, UK, killed 28 people and injured 36 others.

Flixborough - taken from HSE websiteIt resulted in the almost complete destruction of the plant. Further afield, the blast injured another 53 people and caused extensive damage to around 2,000 buildings.

With the exception of the Buncefield fire in 2005, it remains the biggest post war explosion in the UK.

At the time there were no specific UK regulations to control major industrial hazards. The incident also exposed weaknesses in the understanding of hazards, the design of buildings, management systems and organisation.

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