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What Does It Take to Have a Career in Process Safety?

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I always keep getting questions from young engineers about a career in process safety management (PSM). There are two aspects to this. One is a career in process design as a process safety engineer, where process safety concepts are built in to prevent loss of containment. The other is a career in PSM in an operating plant. In both cases, one  needs to understand how humans make mistakes and how human factors play an important role both in the safe design and operation of plants. Hence I always advise young engineers to work in shifts in operating plants during the start of their career at least for 5 years before thinking of a career either in process safety in design or PSM in operating plants.

In my first two years of my career as a graduate engineer trainee in an ammonia plant, I was assigned to work along with field operators in all the sections of the plant before I could become an assistant shift in charge. This made me understand the nuts and bolts of how the equipment operate and get a "feel" for the plant.

As I progressed in my career, I had the fortune of working with great bosses who made us go into technical details and look for potential problems and not just "run" the plant. This was more than a decade prior to ISO 9001 or PSM or other management systems. Yet we ran the plants safely mainly due to the clear written communications and follow up by the bosses who were themselves experienced plant engineers and had come up the ranks. You cannot understand PSM if you don't look, listen, and touch equipment in plants; listen to operators; and understand how humans interact with the equipment. Organization culture plays the biggest role in preventing loss of containment.

Engineers must understand that to practice PSM, you cannot be a virtual engineer. Process safety cannot be managed by sitting behind the comfort of your PC or laptop and watching dashboards.

Karthikeyan Balan is a process safety and risk management consultant with 37 years’ experience in chemical process industry. The article was originally posted on his LinkedIn page. Reproduced with permission.

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