Repsol helps engineers build safer from the start

$500,000 gift to the Lynch School benefits industry and helps safeguard society

Amie Filkow - 19 September 2017

JoAnne (Foster) Volk, '88 BSc(ChemEng), remembers the phone call. Eight months pregnant and only a few days into her maternity leave, the chemical engineer had to sit down to process what she was hearing.

Catastrophic failure. Nineteen people injured. Indefinite shutdown. Full investigation.

The accident happened during a routine maintenance shutdown at the manufacturing plant where Volk worked as process engineer. A contracted inspection team put temporary scaffolding inside a cavernous, 60-metre-high container to examine it at different elevations. The scaffolding collapsed, injuring the crews inside. One man broke his leg.

"Nobody thought about having engineering controls in temporary platforms," Volk says. "We didn't have solid controls around fully understanding the design and if it was suited for the purpose."

Volk's team was lucky. But their harrowing experience is not unique. Discrepancies in safety and risk management - temporary scaffolding raised by contractors, for example-continue to present an enormous challenge for industry. At least one major incident occurs somewhere in the world every week, leading to tragic and avoidable loss. Textile factories collapse on workers. Explosions at refineries cause long-term shutdowns. Large tailings dam impoundments fail, releasing hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of contaminants into the environment.

Today Volk is a water engineer with Repsol Oil & Gas Canada Inc. The energy company recently donated $500,000 to the David and Joan Lynch School of Engineering Safety and Risk Management at the University of Alberta. The Lynch School builds on 25 years of ESRM teaching, research and outreach in the Faculty of Engineering, and is the first of its kind in Canada.

"Our objective is zero incidents," says Jim Hand, vice-president of Repsol's Canada business unit. "Safety is an imperative for Repsol and education plays a crucial role in achieving the highest safety standards. U of A's Lynch School is helping cultivate a safety culture that will benefit the entire industry in the long run."

As a mentor for early-career engineers, Volk insists that safety and risk management should be a core competency of every engineer - from the start.

Volk worked her way through university as a swimming pool lifeguard. Lifeguards, she notes, were trained in safety in advance, whereas engineers were expected to pick it up on the job. "When I graduated I had great lifeguarding skills and a great engineering education, but no practical engineering skills,'' she says. "I was just a young kid without any experience, walking out in the world and designing things for people."

A few years later, while studying and training for her professional designation, Volk had a revelation about the high stakes of safety and risk management and her responsibility as an engineer.

"Public safety is what engineering is about - managing risks to ensure that things are designed so the public doesn't get hurt."

By 2018, every University of Alberta engineering graduate will have some fundamental training in safety and risk management. That's about 1,200 engineers who will take that knowledge to their field.

"We teach our engineers how to heat molecules, transport them, pressurize them - how to transform the physical world," says Gord Winkel, '77 BSc(MechEng), '79 MEng, director of the Lynch School and former vice-president of Syncrude Canada, Ltd. "We need to teach them, 'Not only are you going to transform this world, but you're going to do it safely.'"

Winkel says the success of the Lynch School hinges on partnerships with industrial leaders like Repsol. "This donation creates momentum to support safety and risk management at all levels," he says. "We look forward to building a great relationship with Repsol."

Volk's perspective as a leader and mentor to new engineers helps her see both the immediate and long-term impact of the Lynch School and its partners.

"More study of risk will definitely help industry be safer. Classes in it will help students understand how to do something systematically as opposed to winging it. I think the whole industry will benefit from the commitment that U of A is putting into this curriculum," she says.

"It will make a difference."