December 18, 2023

The Critical Role of Safety And Incident Reviews in Engineering

In the intricate and often high-stakes world of chemical engineering, safety isn’t just a policy; it's the cornerstone of every successful project. According to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), there was a significant increase in reportable chemical incidents during the first quarter of the fiscal year 2023 (October-December 2022), showing 36 events were reported, more than double the number for the first three months of the previous two fiscal years – October-December of 2021 (16 events) and 2020 (14 events). 

Consider a typical day in a chemical plant, where engineers are diligently monitoring processes and ensuring the smooth operation of complex machinery when suddenly, the calm is shattered by an unexpected incident: a safety valve fails, triggering a hazardous chemical spill. In reality, this isn’t just a hypothetical situation but a real-life scenario that has occurred in numerous facilities, such as the incident at the TPC Group Chemical Plant in Texas, where a release of highly flammable butadiene led to a series of explosions that could be felt up to 30 miles away.

Unfortunately, this scenario is not uncommon, and while alarming, it should serve as a stark reminder of the ever-present dangers in engineering environments and provide crucial learning opportunities that emphasize the need for rigorous safety protocols and thorough incident reviews. In this article, we discuss the critical role safety and incident reviews play in fostering successful, responsible, and ethical engineering practices to ensure lessons learned from past mistakes pave the way for a safer, more efficient future.

Understanding Safety in Engineering

In the realm of chemical engineering, safety is more than just following regulations; it represents a commitment to preventing harm to personnel, property, and the environment. We all know the unique risks and hazards chemical engineers face, including chemical spills, explosive reactions, and long-term health hazards from exposure to toxic substances. As engineers, we must carefully balance these challenges with the complex chemical processes we handle to prioritize the well-being of everyone involved. 

At the core of this balancing act is risk management, a systematic approach to identifying, assessing, and controlling potential threats that involve detailed planning, continuous monitoring, and preparedness for emergency responses. This role of risk management is crucial to not only ensure operational continuity and safeguard lives but also uphold the ethical standards of our profession. 

Mastering risk management in chemical engineering is about creating a culture of safety that is fundamental to the field's integrity and success.

The Process of Incident Reviews

Incident reviews are pivotal in identifying the root causes of accidents or potential hazards by helping uncover deeper systemic problems that might not be apparent at first glance, thereby preventing problems and fostering a culture of continuous safety improvement in chemical engineering practices. Implemented correctly, these systematic examinations, conducted immediately following an incident or near-miss event, ensure critical information is captured accurately to help understand what happened and why. 

In the event of an accident, the review process typically begins with data collection, where all relevant information about the event, including eyewitness accounts and technical data, is gathered, followed by an analysis phase, where experts dissect the collected data to pinpoint the root causes by identifying immediate triggers to uncover underlying systemic issues like procedural flaws and/or equipment malfunctions. 

Once the initial discovery is conducted, the next step is to develop educated recommendations to prevent similar incidents in the future, which may include changes to procedures, training, equipment, or all of the above, concluding with the final phase of implementing these recommendations and monitoring their effectiveness over time. 

Crucial steps in the Incident Review process include:

  1. Initiation: As soon as an incident occurs, the review process should be immediately triggered by setting up an investigation team and outlining the scope of the review.
  2. Data Collection: The team collects all relevant data about the incident, including eyewitness accounts, operational data, technical reports, and any other information that could provide insights into what happened.
  3. Analysis: With the data in hand, the team analyzes it to identify the direct causes of the incident, which involves looking at the sequence of events, the conditions at the time, and any deviations from normal operations.
  4. Identifying Root Causes: The analysis goes deeper to uncover the root causes and may involve examining broader issues such as organizational processes, safety culture, equipment maintenance practices, training adequacy, or all of the above.
  5. Recommendation Development: Based on the root cause analysis, the team develops recommendations aimed at preventing future incidents that could include changes to procedures, updates to safety protocols, additional training, and equipment upgrades.
  6. Implementation & Follow-Up: The final step in this process involves implementing these recommendations and monitoring their effectiveness to ensure the lessons learned from the incident are integrated into everyday practices and often involve constant feedback for continuous improvement.

Overall, incident reviews are a critical component of safety management, especially in chemical engineering by providing a structured approach to learning from incidents and continuously improving safety standards.

The Impact of Safety Reviews on Engineering Ethics

The profound ethical implications of safety and incident reviews in chemical engineering reflect a fundamental responsibility that we, as engineers, hold toward society because safety in this field is not merely a technical issue; it's a moral imperative. 

As engineers, we are entrusted with the well-being of not only those directly involved but also the wider community and the environment. This trust demands a commitment to the highest standards of safety and a diligent approach to learning from mistakes and preventing incidents in the future, and a robust incident review protocol serves as more than just procedural post-mortems; they should be a testament to an engineer's dedication to ethical practices. 

By thoroughly analyzing accidents and near-misses, we can demonstrate our commitment to safeguarding lives and preventing future harm with a process that embodies a broader ethical responsibility to improve and evolve as a proactive measure continuously. In essence, the rigorous pursuit of safety through incident management is a reflection of an engineer's ethical duty to prioritize human life, environmental preservation, and the greater societal good above all else.


As engineers, embracing a proactive commitment to protecting people, property, and the environment through incident reviews not only helps us with the vital task of uncovering the immediate causes of accidents and their underlying root causes but also helps us shape a safer future. It's always best to remember that these reviews not only assist in incident management in the chemical process industry but also, most importantly, reflect our ethical responsibility to prioritize safety and continuous improvement. As we've seen, the process of risk management, the crucial steps of the proper review procedure, and their ethical implications all converge to create a culture of safety that is integral to the very essence of chemical engineering.

As we move forward, the objective for all engineers and industry leaders is clear: prioritize safety not as a checklist item but as a core value by embracing safety reviews and risk management not just as necessary procedures but as opportunities to learn, grow, and uphold our ethical duty to society. By committing to continuous learning and improving our safety practices, we can prevent incidents and foster an environment of trust and responsibility together to build a future where the safety and well-being of all are at the forefront of engineering innovation and practice.

Additional Resources

Links and references to further reading and professional safety standards.