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Podcast: Hazardous Lies: Former Safety Investigator Pens Fictional Thriller

May 14, 2024
Stephen J. Wallace’s novel is set in an ethylene production facility where an explosion kills workers. Plant management, emboldened by powerful political allies, scramble to hide the truth.

In this episode, Trish & Traci interview Stephen J. Wallace, a former investigator with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board and author of the book "Hazardous Lies." Wallace offers insights into the world of process safety investigations and the motivation behind his fictional thriller. Wallace draws from his real-life experiences to craft a realistic portrayal of the challenges faced by investigators, including companies' attempts to hide the truth, ethical dilemmas and the courage required to uncover the root causes of accidents. 

Transcript

Welcome to Process Safety with Trish and Traci, the podcast that aims to share insights from past incidents to help avoid future events. Please subscribe to this free podcast on your favorite platform so you can continue learning with Trish and me in this series. I'm Traci Purdum, Editor-in-Chief of Chemical Processing. And as always, I'm joined by Trish Kerin, the director of the IChemE Safety Centre. Hi Trish.

Trish: Hey Traci. How are you doing today?

Traci: I'm doing well. I am excited. Today we have a special guest with us, former investigator with the US Chemical Safety Board and author of the book, "Hazardous Lies" Stephen J. Wallace. Stephen has a Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering and a Master of Art in liberal studies. On the book Jacket, it says you are a writer trapped in an engineer's body or vice versa. So, Stephen, thank you for both personas for joining us today.

Stephen: Well, thank you very much. I am honored to be here. It is a delight. I'm a big fan of the podcast. And honestly, when I listen to your podcast, sometimes it takes me back. You talked about the Formosa incident on a recent one, and I was actually the lead investigator for the field portion of that, which was really good. And it was a real lesson in human factors and how an older plant, sometimes one that isn't heavily instrumented, like those problems can come back to catch you very easily when only one mistake is made. You also got into another area that I've really thought was really important to emphasize, and that is the area of rescue and how sometimes... When I was at the Chemical Safety Board, for instance, I led a study of the hazards of asphyxiation and how many times in confined spaces the victims were people who rushed in to try and rescue someone.

And I really like the way that you brought all of that together and how you do that on the podcast. As someone who's been in process safety for several years, I have to tell you that you're really feeling a need. And I know you don't want me to just brag on you all day, although, oh keep going, that's fine.

Traci: I won't object.

Stephen: But it is fantastic. And I have to say I'm a big fan, and it's quite an honor to speak to the two of you. Thank you.

Traci: Well, we are very much excited to talk to you, too. Trish and I were chatting about the book a little while ago, and really we enjoyed it. And to set the scene for the podcast, let me read the blurb for your debut novel here. "A Loud blast in the early morning shakes a neighborhood and alarms a community. An unthinkable tragedy has occurred. An explosion at a chemical plant has left workers dead and the son of a state senator missing. Plant management, emboldened by powerful political allies, scrambles to hide the real cause. It's up to Jon Barrett, a new investigator for the government to discover the truth. Haunted by his role in an earlier fatal accident, he struggles to find the courage to fight for answers."

And I've got to tell you, it only took me a few days to read this book because I got pulled in right away. The chemical industry, safety concerns and a mystery. All right up my alley here, and I know Trish's as well. What was the motivation to write this book? Obviously you have the background, so can we just talk a little bit how you came to fruition with the book?

The Motivation Behind Hazardous Lies

Stephen: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I guess one of the things is I wanted to write a book that I wanted to read. It may sound kind of, I don't know, obvious, but when you look around for the genres of thrillers and such, you can find a lot of information out there. There are a lot of books that are sort of set in courtrooms or different areas, but I didn't see very much that's in the field of engineering, although in my opinion, and perhaps I'm biased, it's a very intriguing area, but it's an area that's somewhat unknown to most people. They only perhaps have seen a chemical plant as they drive by in a car and they form their own opinions. Or when there is an accident, for example, they may hear about it. But I've always been somewhat interested also in creative writing. I, as a child, I would write poems, I would write songs, and I really never grew out of that, so to speak. I kind of hope I never do.

When I was a senior in college, in my undergrad, I went to an American Institute of Chemical Engineers meeting at the University of Florida, and there was an individual there who gave a keynote speech, and it really stuck with me. One of the things that he talked about and the thesis of his discussion was how important it was even for technical people to continue to pursue their creative sides. He himself was a painter, although he was the chair of an engineering department there at the university. But he also talked a lot about, for example, DaVinci and how DaVinci was a fantastic artist, but he was also a fantastic scientist. And that always stuck with me and I thought, well, there's really nothing wrong with me wanting to be an engineer, but also wanting to kind of dabble with that other part of it as well.

And I guess, as you said, I've always heard this comment, it's good to write what you know, especially when you're starting out in writing. And I think I know a thing or two about this area. The other thing that I wanted to do, and this may sound odd, but another motivation as I really started to sit down and put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard, as you will, is I kind of thought it would be nice to have a book that for instance, a grandmother who was not a technical person could talk to her granddaughter who may be an engineering student or perhaps was working in a chemical plant and they could have something to talk about rather than the grandmother saying, "I don't really understand what you do." And hopefully this book is technical enough to intrigue a technical audience like most of your listeners probably are.

But I also try to make it approachable enough such that it's not just a bunch of technical jargon that's there that it can be appreciated by others. And fortunately, the feedback that I've received from a wide swath of people is that they feel like it did hit that mark, and that makes me feel very good about it. But that's a little bit of background and what motivated me to write the book.

Traci: Well, I think you did hit that well. You did bring in some technical terms, but you took the time to explain them and not in a confusing way. And also, your character development was excellent, too, because sometimes, when you get too many characters going on, you forget what's going on. Still, you made a really good effort and success in getting your characters out there. Trish, I wanted to know, I know you and I talked about this before, but I know you enjoyed the book as well. You want to talk a little bit about what your initial thoughts were?

Life And Death Stakes of Process Safety

Trish: I just want to read a couple of opening lines from it because I found the opening of it so striking and dramatic. It starts, "Three inches to the left and it would've missed the man's heart, he might have lived. John Barrett watched the pump split open as if it was happening in slow motion. He saw the shrapnel shoot out like a missile. He saw the man's eyes closing and his mouth opening to an O as the shard cut through his overalls and into the center of his chest. He saw the blood splatter forward as the man fell back."

And that to me, as I said, was just so striking and dramatic a start, an opening to the book. Because it really drove home the life and death stakes that we deal with in process safety every day.  So, this is a death immediately at the very start witnessed and from a piece of machinery, a process safety incident going wrong. And this is not a trivial way to start a book. So, I guess, Stephen, how do you hope that people will interpret this opening from the process safety perspective?

Stephen: I wanted to try to open it in a way that pulled people into the story and at least got them interested and got into the mind of our protagonist right from the beginning. And one of the things, and I think it's very important what you say, we are dealing with life and death issues. And not only loss of life, but loss of quality of life in some cases. But even beyond the people who are direct victims of unfortunate victims of process safety accidents are also people whose lives will change, and they will never be the same again. As part of my career, I've spoken to a number of people who have worked with colleagues, and they may have just lost a family member. I remember on one of the accident investigations that I was a part of at the Chemical Safety Board, some of the individuals were burned, it was actually a dust explosion and some of the individuals were burned.

In the burn unit, one of the, I was not there, but I heard about this secondhand, and it was very touching. One of the gentlemen who was there was pretty badly burned, and he apparently was pointing to his ring finger and his heart. And then he was asking, trying to ask in his very damaged state that he was in, how was his wife who was also working there? And, as I recall, she was one of the people who perished. And so on the one hand, you don't just want to have this glorification of a tragedy or something like that, but I think it is important, especially when you're dealing with something as important as process safety and you're dealing with the hazards that exist, that right off the bat I just wanted to have the reader to get into that world and into that space.

Now a different accident, as you know, is developed throughout the book in a different scenario, but I thought that being able to open it in that way and pull people in would be probably the, I thought that would be sort of a good way to introduce people to what is going on in this individual's life. How something that happened so long ago is still haunting him. And then that's what I was trying to get across, and that's what I think people will probably take away from the opening.

Trish: Yeah, it was very powerful. Thank you.

Traci: Very powerful. You and the protagonist have very similar lives. Are any of the scenarios in the book based on real investigations? Obviously, you pulled from that moment with the gentleman pointing to his heart and his ring and concerned about his wife, and those things stick with you. But are there any other scenarios in the book that kind of were based on real-life events?

Safety Investigation Experience Aids Writing

Stephen: Well, I'll say, just like the disclaimer in the book, it is a work of fiction, and everything is a product of imagination. But I will say that, as with all authors, a lot of that is informed by my own life experience, a lot of which I've had in this area. And I will say that some of the themes in the book really overlap a lot with reality, and what I've seen is, for example, a non-conservative approach to risk. When I'm talking about this in some small groups that I've been talking about, I like to use the byline. They took shortcuts during the design but found no safety and Hazardous Lies. And I haven't found a better byline yet, so I will probably stick with that.

But that is something that I saw over and over again when I've done investigations, which is that if you either through omission or commission if you have a hazard that is in the process and you do not address it, that's a latent hazard that can be sitting there for a long time. But of course, if you're familiar with sort of the Swiss cheese model, if you will, when all the holes line up in exactly the wrong way, all of a sudden that one last problem that you have will actually come back to haunt you. And that's sort of developed in the actual accident that happens in the book, and that's very close to what happens, in reality, a lot.

Another thing that is a theme that is explored in the book, but that I've also seen as a general theme from the actual investigations that I've done, is kind of understanding that a problem is there but not taking action to address it in time. And it's just like, for example, in your podcast on Formosa, there was a bit of a discussion about, well, this hazard was known. Still, there was no action taken to address the lack of instrumentation, which would've made it a much safer process if they had taken that. And I've found that as well in my work.

It's one thing if you're dealing with exotic materials and there are, for instance, some reactions that you're doing research and development and you weren't quite able to tell what was going to happen; those things can happen as well. But a lot of times, what happens is there will be an accident, and you knew well in advance that there was going to be a problem. I mean, one of the incidents that I investigated at the safety board and was a part of was a tank that held mostly acid, but there were flammable materials that could be there. There was a small hole that had developed at the top of the tank because there was an appendage that was coming off the tank at one time, but due to corrosion over time, that had fallen off, and there was a small hold there.

Well, that was discovered during an inspection. And we looked at the actual document where the inspector had mentioned that and that that hole needed to be fixed as soon as possible. But it was not, and the conditions lined up such that particular afternoon, the flammable material came out of the vessel out of that hole and caused an accident and explosion, and one individual lost his life during that. So that's kind of another thing that I would say. And I guess the third thing that I would think about in terms of things that are explored in the book that are actually really consistent with what I've seen is this whole idea that sometimes organizations will avoid short-term costs that will actually result in long-term problems. And it may be kind of a subset of what I was talking about a minute ago, which is you delay addressing something.

But a lot of times in design what I have seen, or when you go back and you look at an accident and then you trace it back to design, you see that there's an overvalue of present cost over the potential of very large future cost. In Hazardous Lies, I mean we clearly see that this particular incident that's discussed and the scenario is identified in a hazard and operability analysis. The investigator is going through those records and starts to discover all of the warnings that should have been in place. Still, the company instead of prioritizing that kind of accepted risk and the budget that was allowed and the costs that were allowed for the actual design were prioritized over actually trying to address from an engineering standpoint the hazards that were there.

And so those are a few of the things that I would say have kind of informed the book. Your question is along the lines of what is, how much of the book is really based on what you've actually seen. I would say this: some of the scenes that are most hard to believe were informed by life experiences as well.

Do Companies Hide The Truth?

Traci: Now that brings me to my next question. Do facilities attempt to hide the truth as we learn in this book?

Stephen: I've seen a range, and I myself got started in the chemical industry and I was in the chemical industry for some time. And in the book we see that the novel really does explore the culture of secrecy and what can happen when that gets to the, I would almost say to the extreme. But I think it's fair to say that that temptation exists. And I think it's fair to say that it manifests itself in different ways. After an accident, especially one in which you have someone from the federal government show up, like our protagonist is in this case. People aren't necessarily taking the approach; well, thank goodness this individual has shown up from the government, and they're going to help us.

And like I said, I have seen that kind of manifest itself in different ways. In some ways there is kind of a hesitancy to make operators available actually to talk to people. We had to, in some cases, go ahead and issue subpoenas to have people talk to us because, I mean, we tried the cooperative route, but then, in some cases, you have to go in a more compelling way. I've also seen document requests; this is reflected in what our poor investigator in Hazardous Lies has to go through, that there are a lot of very specific ways of responding to requests. If you don't ask for things in a certain way, then those are not presented to you. It's kind of like the truth and the whole truth. If I know to ask for a certain document, then I may be able to get that document, but there may be other documents which would help me in the investigation and I don't know about those initially unless I asked specifically about those.

That's why I've always wanted to, when I do an investigation or an audit or an assessment or something, I try to keep the questions as open-ended as possible just to make sure that I'm not missing something. If I say, have you done any kind of hazard analysis of this unit in the past year? And someone says, "No, we have not." But if they did one, say, a year and a half ago, and they say, well, but this would probably help you because we did it a year and a half ago. And that's kind of an extreme example, but I just want to show you how I've gotten into the question about how specific do you ask the question and how specifically do they respond to it? But I come at this having kind of been on both sides of it.

I've been at a chemical plant, I was the process safety engineer when we had a serious accident. And I do understand that there is the dynamic that it's not always people just wanting to sort of clam up and be protective. Sometimes there is a bit of a fog of war after an accident and you don't really know exactly what has happened. But what always worries me or has worried me when I have been on the other side as an investigator has been that I hope that they are, even if they're not being straight with me, I hope they're being straight with themselves. So, I hope that they have a robust investigation. Now, I had in some cases a lot of time to investigate and to sort of talk to a number of people in a variety of people to try to flesh out, okay, these stories don't match, I'm not getting any cooperation in one area, so I'm going to try to get it in another area.

But I always hoped at least that they had more robust processes and that they weren't keeping information, for example, from their own people. So, I would say, as far as an answer to your question, there are some companies that really do have that culture of secrecy and their default instead of trying to be very open and transparent and help an investigation along, which we all hope will help to prevent future ones, that they tend to think of it more in a legal rather than a moral framework. And that was always concerning to me.

Ethical Challenges And Whistleblowing

Trish: Earlier this year we saw Didion Milling was sentenced after they were found guilty of deliberately falsifying documents following the explosion at their mill. So, there's a recent example of where we have seen a company attempt to hide the truth that resulted not only in the company getting prosecuted but also some employees from the company being sentenced to jail for that fraudulent activity in terms of trying to hide what had occurred in that particular incident that the CSB had investigated as well. But the sentence thing was because they falsified documents for OSHA and EPA records, so very significant criminal activity there. I guess from that perspective, Stephen, a lot of it comes down to ethics and whistleblowing as well, that courage for someone to stand up and say, "Hey, this is wrong. We can't keep doing this. This has to stop." Have you experienced some ethical challenges in your career that really helped inform that storyline for you?

Stephen: I did, and really right off the bat, one of my first jobs out of college, I was a process engineer at a polyurethane production factory, we made foam for furniture. And as part of my job, I also oversaw the laboratory at a very young age. It was a lot of responsibility at a young age, but I felt I could handle it. And we were, as part of the trials and as part of the selling the foam to various customers, we had to do certain type of test, laboratory tests to make sure things were in specification. For example, the foam had to be of a certain density, the foam had to be of a certain strength, and there were various specifications that the foam had to go ahead and meet. So, I was over the laboratory and we had a, not a routine request, but we had a request to do a run of foam to make some foam for a customer.

And one of their requirements was a specification that we didn't even have the equipment for at the laboratory. And so, I mentioned that to our sales department that we were not going to be able to do this in-house and it may take some time to find it. It was sort of a specialty. And I later found out that essentially what had happened is that the people who had been in my position before had made up numbers, literally just made up numbers on the test, and they had sent that along with the shipment of the foam, the material, and I wasn't going to do that. And I met with the plant manager, and my boss came and talked to me and basically said, in the past, the person in your position just made up the numbers, put them in the range that would be acceptable, and we shipped the foam. And it was more of a kind of; this is the way that we do the business type of talk that he had with me.

And I told him that I wasn't going to do it, which, as you can imagine, made me very popular with upper management. And I also told the sales personnel that I wasn't, and I said, "If you want to make up numbers, that's up to you," but I'm not going to do it. And I eventually ended up leaving that job. And it's a good thing sometimes, even when you do the right thing, there's a cost, and that's to go back to Hazardous Lies; there's certainly, you see that throughout the book with this protagonist. I wasn't necessarily thinking about that theme when I was writing it or that particular incident, but I'm sure that that's deep down in my psyche and probably came out a bit in that. But the punchline of that story is that company that I worked for was later investigated for environmental crimes, and I had to go testify before a federal grand jury, not about my role because I had not done anything but really about the general culture of the place.

And after I walked out of that grand jury testimony, I said, I am so thankful that I left there under whatever circumstances, but that was years ago when I like to think that people aren't being asked to sacrifice any of their ethics or such. It kind of took me back to a professor that I had when I was in undergrad in chemical engineering, and I remember that he said in one of the lectures that, "Don't ever do the wrong thing because if you sell your soul, all you will end up with is a sold soul." That kind of stuck with me for a while so I thought about that.

Trish: Yeah, absolutely. Being put in the position to make those ethical decisions is never easy, but as engineers, it's something that we just have to do because we do have a higher duty that we need to uphold. It can lead to career-limiting consequences at times, but it's important to be able to sleep at night and know that people are safe from the work that you've done. That's for sure, Traci.

Traci: Well, I was just thinking it's almost like you and Stephen led parallel lives with what you're talking about and everything. And Trish, you and I did that ethics podcast and as I was reading Hazardous Lies, you use that as a leverage point with one of the engineers and Jon Barrett got some good intel from that. So it was interesting to see how everything weaves in together and it was just very compelling. My question now is obviously you don't call it the Chemical Safety Hazard Investigation Board in the book, you don't even allude to it, but you worked for them and you wrote this book. Has there been any reaction from them?

Chernobyl Meets CSI

Stephen: It's been a while since I've been there. I left the board in about 2006. I'd been there about six years at that point. It was a great experience, but I don't really keep in touch with too many people who are still there. But I do keep in touch with some people who I worked with when I was there and that they have moved on and the response has been very, very positive. In fact, the endorsement on the back was written by Rixio Medina, who's a past board member. He was also a past president of the American Society of Safety Professionals, and we've kept in touch over the years. We run into each other at meetings and such, and he was enthusiastic to do it. He even noted that it's sort of like Chernobyl meets CSI, but in a chemical. So that was a bit of a unique situation. And other people have gotten back with me and said that they enjoy it.

And I'll tell you, maybe a bit of a humorous aside is in general, the people that I worked with at the Safety board and as well as in the chemical industry and in the consulting industry I've had on more than one occasion, they've contacted me to ask which character they are, and I let that play out. And they generally tell me, "Oh, I know which one I am, I think I'm this one." But I always tell them that all the characters are fictional, which is true, and that is very true though I will concede that perhaps like all authors, some characters may sort of be an amalgamation of maybe several people that, so perhaps some people see a small piece of them in this character or that character. But to answer your question, the people that I keep in touch with that I worked with at the Safety Board have been very complimentary about it. Some of the very people that I went through a lot of the investigations with when I was there.

Writing Challenges

Traci: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?

Stephen: I think for me it was really kind of finding the time to write. And I put a lot of that on myself. I'm probably not the most disciplined of writers. I know that some people wake up at, I've heard of people who wake up at 4 a.m. I'm a member of a few writing groups now, and I hear about these dedicated, fabulous people who will wake up at 4 a.m. and write four or five hours before they do anything else. And I'm kind of like, well, that's not me. I admire that, but I've never developed that habit.

What I did is I did start to set milestones for myself. So, I think the biggest challenge was time and figuring it out. I didn't really run into so-called Writer's Block as much as I ran into time obstacles and I would say, "Well, I want to write this much. I want to write this many pages this day." But what I ended up doing as a way to continue is, and maybe this is a little bit about how I write. A lot of people in the creative writing world, they fall into two different camps. They'll call them plotters or pansters. And the plotters will develop a very extensive, if you've seen a fishbone diagram that's almost like they'll develop all the moving parts and how they all come together and this scenario is happening at this time and on this parallel timeline, this other thing is happening and they meander through and they eventually connect and they need and such.

And then you have at the other end of that, you have Pansters, which are people who literally just sit down at their keyboard and they just write and they start writing and they go wherever the narrative leads them. I understand the great Rick Radsberry fell into that category, and there are several others I know. But I'm kind of somewhere in the middle. What I do is I like to sit down with what I would call plot points. I'll know when I started out with this, I had ideas and I had probably somewhere between 15 and 20 plot points or scenes that I thought were, this is what I want to see in the book. I knew exactly how I wanted the book to start, and I knew exactly how I wanted the book to end. But in the middle, in between all that, I had these milestones.

And so what I started doing rather than beat myself up for not getting up at 4:00 AM is, I would try to set aside time to write from one plot point to the next. Okay, I know that this is going to happen chronologically and then this next thing is going to happen. And there were some times when I said, "I don't see how that I'm going to get from this point to that point. I don't see how my poor protagonist is ever going to get out of this." He is in such a corner and there's no way this is going to resolve. But that's where I would sit down and I would write, and ideas would come sometimes little by little, like a drip and sometimes like a breaking of a dam, and I couldn't capture them all, I did my best.

But that's kind of how I tried to steer around that great challenge of timing was to, I worked probably less on time or pages per day, and I worked on progress toward the next plot point. And sometimes it was as natural as breathing to go from one point to the next. And sometimes it was like slogging through mud up to your knees to try and say, how are we going to get to this next point? But that's kind of how I waded through that to use that metaphor and try to get around that. But that was a challenge.

Traci: I have a similar writing, well, I have a goofy writing process. I kind of germinate everything in my head where I want to go with it. I obviously do my interviews or whatever I need to do, and then I organize a sock drawer, I organized the pots and pans in the kitchen, and then all of a sudden the inspiration hits me. What I did find particularly pleasing about this book was the continuity. I'm a stickler where if I catch something off in a timeline or somebody's age doesn't match up or something, it sticks with me the entire book. And now I am searching for my truth to make sure that I'm not crazy that the writer did it wrong. There was nothing like that in there. So, regarding your continuity, did you have a continuity editor, or was that all just you?

Stephen: It was mostly all me. I did have an editor and the editor, and that's a very good example. The editor made a change, and I said exactly what you're saying. I said, "Hold it, hold it. I don't think this fits in this timeline." So, I took about a week, and we're talking; this was fairly close to production time, but I said, "I've got to step back, and I've got to really line this out to make sure that everything lines up." This is a critical part of the book, and I don't want anything to be off. I don't want there to be a problem with this; for instance, it is stated one way in one place and a different way in a different place. And I didn't want the reader to wonder, well, where are we?

I thought this is what happened on that particular day or that particular time, or in that circumstance or this individual. And I really tried to be very, very almost tedious at that. And going back and editing my own work is not my favorite thing. And you'll probably hear a lot of creative writers say that. You tend to create things, but you're not as happy going back and redoing it. I remember when I first wrote this book, it's around, I think the book now is around 93,000 words or something, which is pretty standard for a thriller like this. But when I first wrote it, it was about 155,000 words. And of course I thought it was the greatest thing anyone had ever written. And then when I looked at it and when I started pitching it and I started hearing, well, debut author, you are facing a lot of headwinds anyway, and now you have a book that's so much longer than it should be, this is a problem.

So, I went through and I had to sort of really take a scalpel and cut it out. I didn't cut any of the meat, but I did keep all of those to then put in what... I made up a special subdirectory, I called it Thoughts for the Future Masterpiece because it hurt me so bad to cut all of that out of the book, but that was the way that I did it. And so kind of getting back to your point, that's the way that I tried to do it. I wanted everything to be able to flow and consistently, and I didn't, like I said, I've read books like that as well where I said, oh, well, this doesn't do that. And I've also read books at times when I thought that maybe a character took an action that was very much out of character for how I knew that character to be based on what we had been told as the reader.

And I didn't want to have any of that either. I mean, someone may do something. I mean, we are irrational creatures by and large, and we may do something that doesn't necessarily make sense with everything else, but at least the reader needs to understand what has changed in this person's life such that this person used to be this way, and now they took an action that seemed contradictory. So whether it was the timeline, whether it was the consistency of the characters or whatever, and it's kind of you to say, you didn't find that, I'm glad you looked for it. So that was good.

Traci: I don't look for it. It's just I'm an editor and a writer, so it just kind of sticks out like a sore thumb when I catch it. So I never really am looking for those types of things. But they stand out. Are there any Easter eggs or any hidden references that readers might enjoy discovering?

Easter Eggs And Hidden References

Stephen: Well, I think there are some things in the book that if you know the subject, it's sort of like a little different sort of take on things because of some of the experience that I've had. For example, I do talk about the budgetary process in the federal government to a degree and how political that can get. And that's not all made up, believe it or not. There can be a lot of swapping and somebody knows the right individual. And of course, one of the things that we see in the book is that our investigator's boss is fighting this losing battle to even keep that office open because there's someone in a more powerful position who has eyes on his money. And that's one of those things that I think maybe not everybody is exposed to, but perhaps it's something that if you read it, I think the reader may actually learn a little bit of a story about how some of that can happen sometimes.

Another thing I would say, maybe I don't know about a hidden reference or not, but when I think about this book, if I were to try to summarize it in one word, it would really be courage and how important it is to try to persist in the face of great odds. That's a theme of a lot of books, but I really tried to bring that out in this. I think there are some, I actually think even though it's a thriller and parts of it go to very dark places, I think there are some lighter moments. I think there are some, like a disruptive attorney, one of your earlier questions is the thing, how much of this is really based on true life? I can tell you that I had to deal with a lot of disruptive attorneys, not to put all attorneys down. Some of my best friends are attorneys as I'm obliged to say. But during some of the investigations, I have had situations where there were these disruptive moments.

And I would say that sitting back and reading about those, it's much more entertaining than living through it. I remember in one of the investigations that I did, there were several parties that were there because it had been an incident, there'd been a death. So you weren't just talking about the individual who had passed, which was a contractor. You're also talking about the host company in that case. You're also talking about the piece of equipment that was installed. You're also talking about the company that designed the equipment, the company that installed the equipment, and even the company that went through the process of evaluating the design for safety. And you have those situations where you're sitting there and it's not the easiest thing in the world when you have several attorneys sitting in the room with you at one time and you're speaking one-on-one to the individual.

And of course in the book that happens as well. Our poor investigator really had to deal with a lot of that, and we kind of talked about one of the others, but one of the hidden references I thought was maybe playing very specific about requests and how sometimes it's a piecewise way that you get to something. So you may ask for something and you may get a portion of it and it leads you to ask for something else. I think some of those are areas that readers may enjoy. I think the whole development of the office dynamics in Washington D.C. and how our investigator, who happens to be from Nebraska, I myself, am from Kentucky. I'm often reminded, even though I've been in Washington D.C. for 25 years, that people can tell very quickly that I'm not originally from here.

So, I'm someone who came from somewhere else just like our beloved protagonist in this case. And kind of the way that he gets to know Washington DC right down to the sounds when he gets off of the metro, which is what we call our subway, and how sort of the ebb and flow of life in Washington is so much different. And he came from the farmland. But this book is also set in, it has two different places with settings with the chemical industries. One is in Charleston, West Virginia, where much of the book is actually set. And then the other is Baltimore. I needed two places that had industry where I could get my protagonist there within a few hours. And it just so happens that in my life as a consultant, I had done risk assessments at facilities in both Charleston, West Virginia and Baltimore, Maryland. And so those were two areas that seemed like they were good settings for this as well.

And as I think through as far as Easter eggs were hidden references, another thing that I have in there that I could not resist, and it sort of flowed in there, was the love of the local wineries here in Virginia that John's boss has. Virginia obviously is not the most well-known wine region, but it is a wonderful place to go to, and he himself is dealing with some of the problems that he has.

He's up against retirement, but he's also up against trying to do the right thing. So he has layers of complexity as well. But he starts thinking in the analogies of how the Virginia wines are and how he himself is, some people are very snooty and wine snobs, but he's always been satisfied to go with the local wines. And it's kind of a theme there as well, which is the powerful people and how people who aren't powerful view that. For example, talking about the attorneys, again, he has to walk down these mahogany halls and he sees all these impressive photos of these attorneys with presidents and Congress people and such, and he's never had that, but he still has to figure out how to do the right thing, even though he's getting pressure not to. So I hope that's kind of an answer to your question, but those are some of the little side notes in there that I think people may enjoy discovering.

Traci: I know I did. Trish, what were some of your favorite parts of just reading and resonating with you or making you smile or nod in agreement?

Trish: I think some of the things for me is reading them and thinking partly I've seen that before or I've had that experience myself or yeah, I know precisely what mechanism of failure we are talking about because I've studied that one, or I've seen an incident, I've investigated something like that myself. So, for me, a lot of it was familiar in an unfamiliar way because it was pieced together differently. It's a different story to my life, but there were threads that I could see throughout it, and I found that really interesting. I mean, I admit, I read the book cover to cover on a flight. It was a long flight admittedly. I was flying from Australia to the US, but I did read the book in a single sitting on a flight because I just wanted to know what happened next?

Are There Future Chemical Safety Investigations?

Traci: What does happen next? Do we see Jon Barrett again?

Stephen: We'll have to see. We might, we might. And there's also another book I'm working on right now, which is very different. It's a little more of a humorous office type story, so more to come on that in the near future. Someone mentioned to me the other day that they were very intrigued by one of the villains, and I say one of the villains because as you both know, very few people come out of this looking very good. I'll just leave it at that. Not to spoil any endings or anything. But one of the villains, someone told me the other day, it would be fantastic to see a prequel on how this individual actually got to this point. And I started thinking about that, and I'm like, that would be a good challenge to take on is how do you?

It's kind of like, I don't know, to use this sort of the prequels of Hannibal Lecter, what actually led him to be the way he was? Because in the end, he was a very bad person, of course. But what all led up to that? I mean, was he just born bad and he was always bad, or were these things along the way? So I'm thinking about that. But yeah, we'll have to see. There's a good possibility of that. I'll keep you informed.

Traci: I'd read that story.

Trish: That could be some interesting developments. I'd read that story too. Yeah.

Stephen: Wonderful. Thank you.

Traci:  Well, Stephen, it was a pleasure talking to you. It was a pleasure reading the book. It really was. And then talking to you and getting the insight in how your process works and a little bit of being a fly on the wall of what you've seen in your lifetime. So I appreciate you sitting down with us and talking about this. Unfortunate events happen all over the world, and we will be here to discuss and learn from them. Subscribe to this free podcast so you can stay on top of best practices. You can also visit us at chemicalprocessing.com for more tools and resources aimed at helping you run efficient and safe facilities. On behalf of Stephen and Trish, I'm Traci, and this is Process Safety with Trish and Traci. Thanks again.

Trish: Stay safe.

Editor's Note: You can learn more about Stephen J. Wallace and find links to purchase "Hazardous Lies" via his author website.

About the Author

Traci Purdum | Editor-in-Chief

Traci Purdum, an award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering manufacturing and management issues, is a graduate of the Kent State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Kent, Ohio, and an alumnus of the Wharton Seminar for Business Journalists, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

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