I saw these funny but effective caution signs on the metro system in Rome while traveling.

The din of machinery fills my ears, even when obstructed by earplugs. Above me, pipes soar stretching, twisting, meeting, turning. I follow a large white tube with a finger stretched to the sky. My eyes and feet follow it while my body is carried along for the ride.

Umph.

I meet resistance in the form of a hand belonging to my companion. My mentor points and I turn to see a long chain with an orange buoy attached dangling inches from my face. I would have walked right into it. Even though he probably can’t hear me above the noise or past his own earplugs, I shout a thank you to him. As I turn back to him, he has already moved down the pipe alley towards the distillation column. His blue fire retardant clothing and bright blue hard hat stand out among the metallic surroundings. Gingerly, I catch up with him, avoiding the obstacles along the way.

What is safety?

A dozen scenarios come to mind. Safety is the lifeguard who blows a whistle when kids run at the pool. Safety is a title for scissors with rounded points. Safety is wearing a helmet when you ride your bike. Safety is important.

Chemical plants and refineries especially tend to get a bad rap when it comes to safety. It’s not easy to forget incidents like the recent West, Texas explosion. I think this would be different if safety were integrated throughout the engineering curriculum. Safety should be an automatic habit by the time students leave university in order to prevent as many accidents as possible. Accidents are 100% preventable.

Goal Zero

Should this sign exist? Probably not. But at least it’s warning people to prevent injuries.

At the refinery I work at, we have a policy called Goal Zero. This means that our goal is to have zero accidents always, no matter what. It’s ingrained in our work culture. The refinery’s mission, to quote my mentor, is: “to make as much money as possible while being safe.” Goal Zero means not only watching out for yourself, but also watching out for others and helping them to be safe too. Instead of treating safety mistakes like a punishable act, these mistakes are seen as learning moments so that next time the individual will be safer.

Sometimes safety feels like that unnecessary extra step like a hand on the handrail as you walk down the stairs or following the correct procedure without skipping the unimportant bits or driving the speed limit. One safe action could avoid an accident. One safe action can mean the difference between someone going home to his/her family or going to the hospital. Safety starts with one person.

As college students, it’s easy to feel invincible, despite the wars and sadness described in newspapers. With the incorporation of safety within engineering education, a positive attitude can be formed towards safety. Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Well, safety is a habit too. If we teach safety, we will make the world and some its industrial plants on Earth a safer place.

Want to brush up on your safety knowledge? The American Institute of Chemical Engineers offers a process safety certification course online for free. Learn more about SAChE here!Goal Zero

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