We don’t know yet what caused the explosion and fires at the Superior, WI oil refinery. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), an independent, non-regulatory federal agency, is investigating the incident and it could take weeks to months before the causes of this incident become public information.

What Andre Da Costa, Herbert H. Dow Chair in Chemical Process Safety at Michigan Technological University, says he can tell you is that incidents like this – with an uncontrolled release of energy and chemicals with the potential to cause injuries to the employees and the public, damage to the environment and to property – can be prevented by effective implementation of risk-based process safety principles. The foundation of these principles is the establishment of layers of protection (engineering controls, administrative controls and behavioral controls) to prevent or mitigate incidents.

"The easiest way to understand this concept is through the 'Swiss cheese' analogy," Da Costa says. "Consider each slice of cheese as a barrier designed to prevent plant incidents. Just like each slice of Swiss cheese, these safety barriers may have holes, weaknesses; if the holes in each barrier line up, they leave a gap that can lead to a hazardous situation."

He adds that the primary reason process safety incidents happen is lack of understanding of hazard’s causes and consequences and/or inadequate safety culture. Typically, the telling signs are evident long before incidents happen. While we don’t know yet the specific causes of this incident, it’s been reported by the media that this refinery has paid several penalties to federal regulators for violations related to hazardous waste operations, emergency response and flammable and combustible liquids.

Andre Da Costa joined the faculty at Michigan Tech as a professor of chemical engineering and Herbert H. Dow Chair in Chemical Process Safety in 2017 following more than two decades in the chemical, mineral processing and oil and gas industries across five continents. His industrial experience includes R&D, engineering and operations. He has expertise in membrane technology, technology of inorganic compounds and fertilizers and process safety. In his current role at Michigan Tech, he is working to train students, staff and faculty on the best practices to mitigate and minimize chemical engineering disasters both on-campus and as graduates pursue careers in industry.

Preferred contact is email: adacosta@mtu.edu