Process-safety champions live a life a service. Their goal is to make sure workers go home after every shift. There are many reasons these leaders heed the calling; none more raw than preserving the memory of a loved one lost to tragedy.
On Oct. 23, 1989, Mary Kay O’Connor, an operations superintendent, was killed in an explosion at the Phillips Petroleum Complex in Pasadena, Texas. From that day forward her husband, Michael, made it his life’s mission to honor her.
In 1995 the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center (MKOPSC) at Texas A&M University was established to bring about changes in the industries dealing with hazardous operations and chemicals through knowledge creation, training and the practice of process safety.
On July 18, 2022, MKOPSC’s founder, Michael O’Connor, passed away.
The MKOPSC released a statement:
“Mike was deeply passionate about the center that he had founded in memory of his late wife, Mary Kay. . . . Mike tirelessly worked to ensure that all individuals in process industries are fully knowledgeable and trained in the philosophy of safety. Through these efforts, he has possibly saved thousands of lives. We cannot put into words the loss that will be felt by his passing. In addition to his family, those of us who had the opportunity to work under/with him will also feel a tremendous loss.”
Others in the industry also shared fond memories.
“Mike used his wisdom, his mechanical engineering knowledge and his time and energy to found the Mary Kay O'Connor Center and to advance process safety.
“I have seen Mike's continuous commitment and contributions to the Center and to process safety since I helped organize the Technical Advisory Committee in the early 1990s. He was a great process safety engineer, a great leader and a great friend. We will miss Mike.”
-- Victor Edwards, PhD, P.E., President and Principal Consultant, VHE Technical Analysis, and editorial board member at Chemical Processing
“I first met Mike O’Connor in 2014 in College Station, Texas, when I attended my first Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center International Symposium. He was a quiet and reserved man who observed the activities taking place around him, soaking up knowledge. I also saw a man who was intensely passionate about equipping future generations with the process safety knowledge they need to stay safe at work. Mike tended to take a less public role at the MKOPSC as a research associate, working in the background, developing papers and challenging the status quo about how we learn process safety. Following the passing of Dr. Sam Mannan, Mike took a more visible leadership role in the center, steering through the transition and advocating for process safety education. His dedication to this cause has undoubtedly saved lives, and will continue to in the process industries. The MKOPSC is an amazing legacy from both Mike and Mary Kay. I considered Mike a friend, and looked forward to seeing him each October in College Station, he will be sadly missed by the MKOPSC fraternity.”
-- Trish Kerin, director, IChemE Safety Centre, Institution of Chemical Engineers, and subject matter expert of Chemical Processing’s Process Safety With Trish & Traci podcast.
In an article that Mike wrote for The Chemical Engineer commemorating the 30th anniversary of Mary Kay’s death, he noted: "There was the presumption at that time that if you were a knowledgeable and conscientious engineer, safety followed automatically. Given my personal experience I realised this was not true and much more needed to be done to implement process safety."
While the work of process-safety champions will never end, every worker who goes home from their shift is an honor to Mary Kay and the tireless work of her husband, Mike.Traci Purdum is Chemical Processing's executive editor. She is inspired by people who put service above self to make the world a better place. She hosts the podcast Process Safety With Trish & Traci. You can email her at [email protected].