By Gregory Hale
Imagine if you are a 9-year-old outside playing in your yard one fine summer day and you hear a loud siren and then end up seeing a yellow-green cloud starting to float over and you hear state police driving through the neighborhood yelling on their loudspeaker to evacuate immediately.
That is exactly what happened to Louisa Nara back on July 24, 1968 when there was a chemical release at a chemical plant in Charleston, WV.
“These incidents can have an impact on you as an individual,” said Nara, the global technical director at the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS), during her presentation entitled “Why I am Passionate about Process Safety” at the 14th Global Congress on Process Safety at the 2018 AIChE Spring Meeting in Orlando, FL. “I lived just 3700 feet from the chemical plant.”
Back in 1968, the methods of communication were quite a bit different than today, so to get an evacuation order it involved police driving through neighborhoods.
“The state police drove up saying this is an emergency and you must evacuate,” Nara said. “The plant had a fire and it is not safe. So, we got into the station wagon and headed west for 25 miles. We piled neighbors and pets into the car and drove. We ended up at a neighbor’s relative’s house bout 30 miles away. The next day we were able to return.”
It turned out 15,000 people had to evacuate. The headlines in the newspaper read “Deadly FMC Fumes Leak” occurred at the chemical plant.
The fumes were from chlorinated dry bleach, and Nara said, if we stayed, it could have been fatal.
“I know the power of chemistry,” she said.
Nara’s talk was not to be dramatic and not to invoke fear, but to teach engineers “about the sense of responsibility” they all have working in a volatile environment.
Sometimes people never really witness safety incidents first hand, but Nara has seen more than her share.
She also talked about her first day on the job as an intern after her freshman year. She was working at the same chemical plant that forced the evacuation. Two engineers took her on a tour of the plant and they were climbing up to the top of a structure when they heard a loud boom.
“Bricks were flying and I saw a body fly out,” Nara said. “I thought he was dead. The two engineers left me to attend to the victim.”
She then walked down the structure and left the area, but returned to work the next day.
Working in Baytown, TX, in February 2004, Nara said she was about to go to sleep at her home after a long day of work when she heard a loud bang. She called the plant just to make sure things were all right, but no one answered.
She jumped into her vehicle and headed to the plant.
One of the workers told her, “we had an explosion and we can’t find Sandy.”
Luckily, about 20 minutes later Sandy walked into the room. She was supposed to be in the area where the blast occurred, but she ended up diverted, which saved her life.
Those incidents, plus a few others, forced Nara to create her own personal mission statement.
“I will strive to improve safety, reduce risk, enhance security, support ethics and provide for a cleaner and healthier environment for the industries I serve, my community, my country and my world,” she said.
As a safety professional, Nara said, you have to think about the worst things that can happen and then what are you doing about it.
She mentioned five simple rules:
• Understand the hazard
• Keep it in the pipe
• Manage risk
• Keep a sense of vulnerability
• Make a positive impact every day
“We have to make process safety real so you don’t have to live through it,” she said.