New course emphasizes human aspect of safety

Author: Della Pacheco

Three Purdue alums who collectively have worked for nearly a century in the chemical engineering field have teamed up with chemical engineering faculty and staff to create a new undergraduate course focused on process safety management. CHE49700, Process Safety, was introduced this past spring and already is receiving praise from students and employers alike.

The course is open to juniors and seniors, many of whom work in internships and co-ops for companies.

Mike Harris, associate dean of engineering for undergraduate education, says the focus is on safety. "Doing things in a systematic way to mitigate hazards and prevent incidents is exactly what process safety management is all about."

Deb Grubbe (BSChE '77), one of the alumni who helped to develop the course, says the goal is to make sure that the students "understand what they have to know so that they don't hurt themselves or someone else in the future." Grubbe has worked in the chemical engineering field for more than 30 years and owns her own process safety consultancy.

Joining Grubbe were Steve Swanson, who earned bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. degrees in chemical engineering at Purdue, and Ron Cutshall (BSChE '71), both process safety experts in the oil and gas industry. The three worked with Linda Davis, industrial education director, and Harris to develop the course.

Davis, herself a chemical engineer with 24 years of industry experience, worked on benchmarking the course. She says that while other university chemical engineering schools have curriculum touching on process safety management, Purdue wanted to delve more deeply into the topic and develop a course from the industrial perspective based on OSHA's process safety management regulations.

"Students who complete this course differentiate themselves when they graduate and go into industry," Davis says. "Students who go into chemical engineering without this training are underequipped and face a steep learning curve."

Harris says students receive real-world knowledge from experts who present topics related to process safety management. "One may discuss mechanical integrity and maintenance or how to safely shut down a process," he says. "Since many incidents occur during startup, the topics of operator training, operating procedures and checklists are also covered. When students learn and later apply this information, they will not overlook steps or take shortcuts that could compromise the safety of people, company assets and the community."

"Students who go into chemical engineering without this training are underequipped and face a steep learning curve."
– Linda Davis

Peter Meckl, professor of mechanical engineering and co-chair of Purdue's Engineer of 2020 Committee, says more than technical knowledge is needed to ensure safety. The focus of a September workshop for faculty, co-sponsored by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, was on safety and how the importance of safety can be integrated into the curriculum. Meckl says that past workshops have focused on multidisciplinary topics, continuous learning, ethics, global issues, environmental and societal impact of engineering practice, entrepreneurship, risk management, leadership and innovation but safety is at the heart of engineering.

"How does our technology impact people?" he asks. "We need to think about the person who is going to use the product. Engineering science can only take us so far. The rest has to come through other social or human elements that are central to engineering."

Harris says the industrial consultants who helped to develop the class have said that if you don't have the proper process safety culture, procedures are meaningless. "If you look at a lot of incidents that have occurred, there was a human error involved," he says. "The person may think that something is a minor change but actually it ends up resulting in a major incident."

The group hopes to share the information learned from the course with other schools. "We encourage other disciplines to share their stories and challenges so that we can incorporate them into the next class in the spring of 2012," Grubbe says.