Mannan reflects on career, evolution of process safety in chemical engineering

December 4, 2017
| By: Stephanie Jones

Dr. Sam Mannan can point to the exact moment when he first became aware of the importance of process safety. While working at a desalination plant in 1978 shortly after graduating from college in Bangladesh, one day a boiler exploded, sending a heavy piece of iron hurtling toward where he was standing, missing him by only a few feet. But it was close enough to rattle the young engineer.

Another safety related incident, the 1984 Union Carbide pesticide plant’s methyl isocyanate leak in Bhopal, India, which killed thousands of people in the area and injured more than one million, also made an impression on Mannan.

“At the time, I still was young and didn’t understand all the issues, but over time I came to the realization that it was not just the fault of Union Carbide, or even the industry, but that the whole engineering profession had failed,” said Mannan, who is currently director of the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center. “I then looked into engineering history and found that engineering is about serving mankind and helping improve the standard of living of humanity.”

This outlook eventually led him to College Station and the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station’s Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center (MKOPSC). The center was established by Mike O’Connor in 1995 in memory of his wife Mary Kay O’Connor, an operations superintendent killed in an explosion at the Phillips Petroleum Complex in Pasadena, Texas, in 1989. The center’s focus was what Mannan had witnessed firsthand—the importance of safety in the chemical industry. Mannan was brought in to be director of the center in 1997, and has become an internationally recognized expert in process safety.

Although it is now commonly talked about within the engineering profession, at one point process safety was not a popular research topic among chemical engineers. It was viewed as a rudimentary subject that only goes as far as basic lab safety rules (e.g., wearing goggles, lab coats, closed-toe shoes, etc). 

Process safety is now front and center in chemical engineering, and that has a lot to do with the influence of the MKOPSC over the years, one of Mannan’s greatest career accomplishments. 

Safety is now a required course for all chemical engineering students at Texas A&M University. Students in other engineering majors have the opportunity to earn a safety certificate or minor in the subject, and the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering also offers a Master of Safety Engineering program. As a result of their success at Texas A&M, Mannan says other schools and universities around the world have taken notice and adopted similar programs. 

“They’ve seen what a success the program has been and have seen the impact it’s had on graduates,” he said. “I’d like to see this process safety program that we have developed and had success in to be adopted worldwide, so we’re putting a lot of effort into pushing these programs in other countries. We’ve been very successful in Doha, Qatar; China, India and Colombia. So for a handful of countries we’ve been very successful. We want to keep going and make it happen everywhere.”

To date, the center has graduated about 65 doctoral students and around 60 master’s degree students. Graduates from the center are in high demand and working for industry. During the  chemical engineering department’s most recent visit from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc., they had this to say about the center:

“The Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center and required courses as part of this center provide an unparalleled opportunity for undergraduate students in the program to understand process hazards. The chemical engineering program has a strong international reputation due to this industrial focus in their undergraduate program. As a result, students are highly sought for in industrial positions after graduation.”

With a budget of nearly $4 million a year, the MKOPSC has expanded a great deal in the past two decades. At the beginning, Mannan ran the center with only an assistant and a couple of student workers, but the staff has now grown to more than 100. The center has also formed a consortium for industry. This consortium has helped fund research projects from the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, the Department of the Interior.

With its growth, MKOPSC has also developed a strong continuing education program. Courses are taught by engineers with extensive experience in the fields of industrial, chemical, research and process safety knowledge. The courses, such as industrial hygiene engineering and risk analysis safety engineering, are important to the changing landscape and promoting the center’s goal of making safety second nature.

Although process safety has been around for nearly 30 years, many question why events like the West, Texas, plant explosion are still happening. According to Mannan, it is not a simple, one-dimensional question. On the industry side, some of the main issues are the reluctance to adopt or seek new technologies and not studying incidents after they occur to learn how whatever happened can be prevented. In academia, not many schools have adopted process safety programs, so the MKOPSC has been working with other schools in the hope that they will adopt a program similar to what Texas A&M currently has. “It’s been a slow process, but it’s picked up over time,” said Mannan. 

In his efforts to help make safety second nature in engineering among all existing chemical plants, Mannan is also passionate about teaching the public the difference between hazard and risk when it comes to chemicals. To explain the difference, he uses a specific analogy:

 “In a kitchen, you have to have a knife because without one it would be impossible to cut vegetables, meats, etc. But at the same time that knife could also be used to injure or kill someone intentionally or unintentionally, which is the risk when it comes to using one,” said Mannan.

“The same is true of all chemicals we have in society. Most industrial chemicals are in these warehouses because they serve a purpose,” said Mannan. “There is a benefit. We make products out of it which serve mankind, but at the same time if they are not used properly they’re going to cause problems.” 

It is known that some chemical plants operate “under the radar,” with the public unaware of how close in proximity they are to these chemicals. To inform the public about these sites and the hazard they carry, Mannan and a group of researchers created the Potential to Cause Harm to the Public (PCHP) Index. The group gathered data through public resources and identified the flammability, toxicity and reactivity rating for each chemical at each site they visited. Those things combined resulted in a “hazard rating.” They then looked at how much of the chemical was present and the length and width of the building. Using a landview tool from the Environmental Protection Agency they looked at how many people lived within a 2-mile radius. The higher the amount of chemical and higher the number of people within a 2-mile radius,  the base hazard rating was revised upward proportionately.

Many decades after his first harrowing experience with lab safety, Mannan continues to further the center’s mission to make safety second nature. Another testament to his reputation, Mannan was recently appointed to the Department of Energy's Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Advisory Committee, which advises the Secretary of Energy on hazard assessment, risk analysis, vulnerability assessment and process safety management.

"We’ve done quite well from being not known at all to be a nationally and internationally known organization,” Mannan said. “We are producing students who are taking on leadership positions in industry. We are recognized by not only the U.S. government, but the media also as the place to go to get information on process safety.”

Have a question? Not finding what you're looking for? Let us get you in touch with the right person.

Fill out the form below or give us a call at (979) 458-1648 to reach us.