Learning from oil spill disasters


In last week’s issue of C&EN, I had  a story that looked  back at the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills, with an eye toward lessons learned for addressing future spills. I focused on the environmental clean-up, not on the process safety problems that led to the incidents, but there was one talk from the University of New Hampshire Oil Spill Response Forum held last fall that I wanted to flag here. The speaker was Charlie Williams, who retired from Shell as chief scientist for well engineering and production and now leads the Center for Offshore Safety.

Consider these quotes, broadening “process” away from industry to include, say, the process of bench synthesis:

It became apparent that in major incidents, one of the key elements was how you managed your process. Your process of how you operate, how you execute projects, what you do every day, how you make these decisions for safety every day is a key barrier to preventing a major incident.

When the presidential commission talked about improving safety culture in the industry, I think one of the main things they were talking about was this balance between protecting individuals with the the better air bags and the better seat belts, and then putting the right amount of focus on how you also manage your processes and the way you execute your work to make sure that you’re doing the most you can to prevent these major incidents.

Major incidents in academia can, of course, include lost fingers, lost eyesight, and even death. Williams also mentioned management of change, which is an important consideration in a research environment when experiments may be changing frequently.

Here’s Williams’s talk, set to start at the section in question (1:22:00):

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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