Friday, April 11, 2008

How I Learned About Safety

I was an undergraduate in the early eighties, it doesn’t seem that long ago, but in the field of safety education, it was light years ago. We had some general instructions on chemistry laboratory safety to try and keep us from blowing up the lab or each other. There was no talk at all about industrial safety, we had no information on how to stay safe while we were working in our chose field and even more importantly how our role as engineers could keep other people safe.

One of the Safety pages I subscribe asked this question today: How did you learn about safety?

This story is more how I didn’t learn about safety, but it is where I first realized the lack of safety.

My entire engineering safety education consisted of one part of one lecture in one course. (To contrast I teach an entire semester of process safety.) We first watched a video that was primarily about laboratory safety, a humorous video about a klutzy professor in the lab and the problems that ensue.

Then we had the big slide show. I think the guest speaker was from the university safety department, he was a young guy from the rural area and had little or no industrial or engineering experience. This was my one and only safety lecture and I have recreated as best as I can from my imperfect memory.

He began, “We had a bunch of unlabeled compressed gas cylinders. Regulations were in the works that would require all chemical containers to be properly labeled and stored. Also these regulations would require that the contents of these containers would have to be properly treated and if the contents were unknown the material would have to be identified and treated appropriately so as to not be a danger to the environment or the community.”

The italicized words are my addition and were not in the original presentation but they should have been.

For those unfamiliar with compressed gas cylinders, here is what they look like. They can contain anything from helium gas at Chuck E. Cheese, to poisonous chlorine gas at the swimming pool, and various gases used in industry.

He continued proudly, “So we took these unlabeled cylinders to an empty field in the middle of nowhere. And we shot our twenty-two rifles at them. That way any vapor would be released far away from people. And if any materials was corrosive or toxic we made sure we stood upwind, I am sure by the time it the vapor drifted near to people it was diluted enough to be safe.”


Let’s list out what happened shall we…

First- they shot rifles at containers of possibly toxic or flammable materials

They took pictures of the entire event

They brought these pictures in as a slide show to TEACH us about safety.

Even more unbelievable, only one student raised their hand and said, “I don’t think that was a very safe thing to do.” I am sorry to say this student was not me.


Kalynne Pudner said...

That sounds like the makings of a really good short story, a la Flannery O'Connor.

Tanya said...

Wow. At least they only shot .22 those are pretty small.


Damama T said...

If you put it together right, that's got the makings of a really good, bad joke - guns, gas, and good old boys - a combo that's lethal on a GOOD day! AACK! LOL!

Robin said...

Kalynne - I have been thinking about compiling stories to teach safety but I had not considered this one. That's a good idea.

Tanya - The "safety team" used twenty-twos because, "We made sure there would only be a small hole so the the gas would slowly release and the effects of the vapor would be minimized by dilution with the surrounding air." Then he mentioned the crops next to the release dying. (whoops)

Damama - Thanks for visiting, this falls under, Things I couldn't even make up if I tried.