Remembering Tragic Events

Reflecting On Tragedy Can Improve Process Safety

Nov. 6, 2023
Historical events and emotional connections can foster learning and help keep chemical facilities safe.

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Where were you when…It's a common question people often pose to one another when significant historical events are remembered. Baby boomers frequently reminisce about their whereabouts when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. Generation X, having been adults when the tragic events of 9/11 unfolded, can vividly recall their own experiences. As a child growing up, my first major memory revolved around the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster on Jan. 28, 1986, largely because I harbored dreams of becoming an astronaut at the time. However, another major memory etched in my mind is the Longford Gas Plant explosion in Victoria, Australia, on Sept. 25, 1998.

This particular memory remains exceptionally clear. I was employed at a refinery back then, and we received crude oil through a pipeline connected to a facility downstream from Longford. It was almost time for my lunch break when I found myself in the refinery planner's office, engaged in a conversation about crude oil blending. Suddenly, his phone rang, and it was the plant downstream from Longford informing us they were shutting down the crude oil pipeline to our location. The voice on the other end explained that there had been an explosion at the Longford plant but had no further details to provide. They suggested we turn on the radio for updates, as this was in the days before widespread internet news services.

We tuned in to an AM radio station, where breaking news reports detailed the explosion and subsequent fire at the Longford plant. There was mention of two workers who were unaccounted for. The emotion that gripped me at that very moment remains seared in my memory. By that point, several people had gathered around the radio in silence, and we exchanged knowing glances, realizing that the two missing workers likely hadn't survived.

Major events can have a massive influence on our lives, whether they directly impact us or establish an emotional connection. These events can serve as powerful stories to share lessons with others because the emotional link becomes apparent when we share them. Reflect on a moment in your life when you hold a similar memory. How do you feel when you revisit it? Have you taken the opportunity to convey this memory to someone else? Now, contemplate the potential power of discussing our process safety near misses and incidents in a similar manner. By doing so, we can foster genuine learning through the emotional connection we forge. This is one of the reasons why storytelling is an immensely effective means of communication.

The next time you encounter a process safety near miss or incident, take a moment to reflect on how you felt at the time and remember that emotion. Engage in conversations about the incident with others and allow yourself to be open enough to share your emotions. You'll be astonished by the empathetic responses of others and how they, in turn, form their own emotional connections.

Sept. 25, 1998, marked a pivotal moment in my career, a turning point where I truly grasped the significance of process safety and embarked on a path in that direction. I never wished to encounter a report like that again, especially when it hit so close to home. Determined to prevent such events from recurring, I resolved to champion process safety. It took me years to fully comprehend this commitment. In fact, 16 years after the incident, I found myself addressing a live audience and recounting the events of that day. To my surprise, I was overwhelmed by emotion, a novel experience for me, and one that I needed to navigate while on stage. This underscores the profound impact of emotional connections. On that fateful day, we lost John Lowery and Peter Wilson. Although I never knew them personally, their memory has never faded from my recollection of that day.

Stay Safe

About the Author

Trish Kerin, Stay Safe columnist | Director, IChemE Safety Centre

Trish Kerin is an award-winning international expert and keynote speaker in process safety and the inaugural director of the IChemE Safety Centre. Trish leverages her years of engineering and varied leadership experience to help organizations improve their process safety outcomes. 

She has represented industry to many government bodies and has sat on the board of the Australian National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority. She is a Chartered Engineer, registered Professional Process Safety Engineer, Fellow of IChemE and Engineers Australia. Trish also holds a diploma in OHS, a master of leadership and is a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. Her recent book "The Platypus Philosophy" helps operators identify weak signals. 

Her expertise has been recognized with the John A Brodie Medal (2015), the Trevor Kletz Merit Award (2018), Women in Safety Network’s Inaugural Leader of the Year (2022) and has been named a Superstar of STEM for 2023-2024 by Science and Technology Australia.

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