My Story

My Story: G.C. Shah

My safety journey began with an unexpected call from the plant manager. Our company had been recently acquired by a new company. As you can imagine, we were a bit nervous and cautious. One year went by and we began to appreciate the informal, but friendly, style of the new management. I believe we were lucky in the sense that both the old and new management cared a lot about people. When it comes to safety and environment, in my view, workers appreciate openness and trust.

When the plant manager called, I was in the control room and he asked me to see him that day. When I went to his office, after a brief talk, he said we need someone to work in our EHS group to do safety and environmental work. He asked me if I would like to be that person. Without any hesitation, I said, “Would love to.”

This informal phone call started my career in safety and environmental work. I worked on training modules and procedures. Many of my friends pushed me to get a CSP. I received the certification in the late ’90s. In my view, CSP is a good vehicle for a safety professional. One of my responsibilities was field inspections and safety permits.

One incident is special to me and my friends in operations and safety. It involved a confined space entry permit for work inside a 23,000-gallon stirred tank reactor. This reactor was used to make an organic product. It also produced some fines. Before issuing the confined space entry permit, operations had performed a thorough lockout/tagout; the reactor had been vapor-freed.

We also had hooked up a large air circulation system for the reactor. When I checked the inside of the reactor with a direct-reading portable gas detector, it showed a stable reading of close to zero level of flammables. After checking numerous spots traversing the reactor internals, I co-signed the permit. We kept a couple of detectors to continuously monitor the space before and during the work. As workers began to go down the ladder in the reactor, the gas detector went off – showing high levels of flammables. All the workers quickly exited the reactor and it was buttoned up. We had to water-wash the reactor for several hours, followed by thorough vapor freeing. This incident was a near miss, and our vapor-freeing procedure was changed to ensure such incidents do not reoccur.

The lesson I learned: Vapor freeing of confine spaces where there could be residual liquids, solids or even vapors requires a thorough and reliable inspection (possibly some reliable means such as mirrors) to make sure no residue is left.

Another important lesson is people working together. We had a safety culture that thrived on teamwork. Management and workers were averse to bureaucratic delays. Our job was to get that reactor back to operating safely and without unnecessary delays. And we were able to do so. I strongly believe teamwork and trust can reward us with stellar safety performance – any place, any time.

G.C. Shah, CSP
Houston, TX

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