Thursday, May 23, 2013

Interview: Mary Beth Mulcahy, CSB investigator

Mary Beth Mulcahy is a Ph.D. chemist and a Chemical Safety Board investigator. She was kind enough to offer me some of her time for an e-mail interview. What follows is an e-mail interview; it has been formatted for the blog and is basically unedited.

Can you tell us a little about your background? 

Dr. Mulcahy: Public school education mixed with a paper route, fast food jobs, and Science Olympiad in high school eventually led me to a major in chemistry at a private liberal arts school called Colorado College in Colorado Springs. By a chance meeting with someone at a party the last month of my senior year in college, I landed a high school teaching job in a small mountain town that eventually lead me to a teaching job in New York City. After three years of teaching, I went back to tackle a PhD in physical chemistry at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The National Science Foundation provided the funding for a post-doc in Bariloche, Argentina at the Centro Atómico. After returning from my post-doc, I taught high school again for one year before working for a biotech company and then ultimately the CSB.

How did you end up working at CSB? 

Dr. Mulcahy: When I started graduate school at 25 I suppose I thought I would get a PhD and be a professor, but somewhere along the way I realized that I did not want that career path. When I came back from my post-doc, I took a job at the high school where my husband was teaching because they really needed someone and I thought it would be fun to teach again. If anyone out there ever forgets why they got into science in the first place, I highly recommend he or she get a part-time job teaching high school science and then spend the entire year doing interesting demos and experiments with the students that get at real-life problems. (I say part-time because teaching is an incredibly time-consuming job and I do not think one could get the full enjoyment from it if he or she had a full teaching load.)

While I thoroughly enjoy teaching and definitely see myself doing it again toward the end of my career, I really wanted to see what I could do with a PhD. I took full advantage of ACS's help for the unemployed chemist and attended a national meeting for free (I think ACS still lets unemployed members attend for free) where I listened to a seminar on how to use the web to find a job (this was an amazing seminar put on by someone from Google I believe), participated in a kind of speed-dating type round table session to get exposure to other career options for a chemist, and communicated with a mentor that the ACS connected me to. Then, I started searching for a job using two methods I repeatedly read would not work--I cold called companies and answered Craigslist job posts. I was able to secure three interviews and two jobs using the methods.

I originally saw a CSB job posted on Craigslist and the description intrigued me. The CSB at that point was clearly looking for a chemical engineer who had worked in a chemical plant or refinery, but the CSB was also looking for interns. Never one to pass up an interesting opportunity, I applied for the internship and ultimately obtained the position almost a full year after I originally applied. So that year I believe the CSB had two 22 year-old interns, one 23 year-old intern, and me who was over thirty and had a PhD. Still amuses me to think that is how I got here.

What do you do from day-to-day at CSB? 

Dr. Mulcahy: To explain what I do day-to-day I need to give a little background on what the Chemical Safety Board does. At the CSB we conduct root cause investigations of chemical accidents. At first glance, you might think a root cause would be technical in nature such as identifying the corrosion mechanism that lead to the failure of a pipe or storage vessel. More often than not, the corrosion mechanism (or hazard) is well known and awareness of its existence was not enough to preclude the accident. As a result, we focus on finding a correctable failure in the underlying management system that enabled the conditions to develop which ultimately lead to the accident.

During the life cycle of an investigation, my day-to-day activities change depending on whether I am in the office or deployed. Typically we deploy to an accident scene within the first days after the incident has occurred. The early focus is securing the scene to preserve evidence and interviewing eye witnesses.

Once this initial phase passes, we enter into a reiterative process both in the field and the office of reviewing documents, testing equipment/samples, and conducting interviews to understand the equipment/system that failed and the management system it operated in. In the office I spend a lot of time reading through company provided documents, researching technical issues, and coordinating testing. It is much like a down day in the lab when you spend time doing literature searches, plot your data, and maybe contact other scientists about papers they have written. What I like most about office work is every case presents new learning opportunities in science, law/policy, and safety.

Our goal is not to simply fix a single company, but to effect change in an industry so advocacy work is important. This means attending meetings with regulators and  professional organizations that generate best practice guidance to begin a dialogue about the recommendations that the CSB is considering submitting and presenting initial (or final) findings to help promote the safety change we are advocating. After a report is released, outreach remains important and so I give many presentations around the country as well.

What I don’t do on a daily basis is any bench chemistry because the CSB does not have its own laboratories, though I use my chemistry skills often to interface with contractors and in all of the analysis that I do.

What level of experience or expertise do typical CSB investigators have, before they join? 

Dr. Mulcahy: This is extremely varied. The CSB investigators range from just out of college to over 25 years industry experience. In addition to myself, the CSB recruits employees with backgrounds in engineering(chemical, safety, mechanical), human factors, environmental science/policy, occupational health/safety, public policy, chemical accident investigations, and lawyers. Safety and PSM experience at refineries and/or chemical process facilities would help you succeed at the CSB.

If someone wanted a job like yours at CSB, what would you recommend that they do? 

Dr. Mulcahy: If you are still in college I would suggest you pursue internships in the oil and chemical industries or at the CSB (we have internships).  Also enroll in classes that will give you exposure to safety issues in the oil and chemical industries.  If you are working in the industry volunteer for safety investigations and for assignments that take you out of your comfort zone such as researching codes/regulations or writing sections of the final safety investigation report.  Finally, speaking of writing - it is so important for our jobs –no matter where you are in your career take technical writing classes and learn how to communicate technical information to non technical audiences.

What do you think is most misunderstood about the TTU/Preston Brown case? I confess that I am tempted by the 'it was a guy being dumb' answer, and I understand that, safety culture-wise, that's insufficient.  

Dr. Mulcahy: That accidents happen because of “rogue” researchers and if you take the researcher out of the system, an accident will not happen. Look at the TTU report and take the student out of the equation, all the other system deficiencies still existed. Perhaps the exact accident wouldn’t occur if the researcher were removed, but the deficiencies leave the door open for a different accident.

If you were to talk to a group of young graduate students about academic lab safety, what 3 things would you recommend? 

Dr. Mulcahy: I have a full-time job investigating worst-case scenarios and major accidents, they are not as rare as you think.

Learn how to conduct a hazard analysis. This will absolutely require you to talk to more senior researchers since it is difficult to identify hazards in a process you are unfamiliar with.

There is no perfect safety barrier, which means any barrier could fail at any time. Look for inherently safer methods to accomplish your goals, but if you can’t be sure to design your experiments with multiple safety barriers to minimize the risk to you.

If you were to talk to a group of experienced laboratory chemists about chemical lab safety (or chemical plant safety, for that matter), what 3 things would you recommend?

Dr. Mulcahy: Really, I would say the same things I did above.

There is a great quote on safety culture that says it is “…how the organization behaves when no one is watching.”  (American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AICHE), Safety Culture: What is at Stake?,  on 6/16/2011.) I would tell them this quote and then ask if they put on their goggles (even if they were normal eyeglasses) every time they walked into their laboratories.

What gets measured gets paid attention to, and so I would recommend they find ways to actively measure safety in their laboratories. (I just published something about this in a joint paper with other authors for the Journal of Chemical Health and Safety that might be useful to a reader wanted more of an explanation )

CJ here again. Thanks to Dr. Mulcahy for a great interview!

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