01 November 2013

Trevor Kletz - Obituary

by David Edwards, Senior Safety Consultant at Granherne.

One of the founders and leaders of process safety in thought and practice, Professor Trevor Kletz, died on 31st October 2013.  He had been ill for some time with vascular dementia and was living with his son, Nigel and his family in Barnt Green, Birmingham.

Trevor Asher Kletz was born in 1922 in Darlington of Jewish parents, from a Russian immigrant background.  His father, a shopkeeper, was insistent that Trevor should better himself and he attended The King's School, Chester and then Liverpool University.  When he was 11 years old, an uncle had given him a chemistry set as a present, which influenced his decision to study chemistry.  

He graduated in 1944 and joined Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), where he spent eight years in research, sixteen in production management and the last fourteen as safety adviser to the Petrochemicals Division.  In 1978 he was appointed an industrial professor in the Chemical Engineering Department at Loughborough University.  On retiring from ICI in 1982 he joined the Department full-time; in 1986 he became a visiting fellow and was latterly a visiting professor at Loughborough and an adjunct professor at Texas A&M University in the USA.

He was appointed an OBE in 1997 and he was a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Institution of Chemical Engineers, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.  He was also an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and the Safety and Reliability Society.  He is one of the most famous chemical engineers, who was not a chemical engineer!

In 1959, Trevor married Denise (who died in 1980) and they had two boys, Tony and Nigel, who survive him.  He also leaves behind a magnificent canon of published work, including eleven books and well over a hundred reviewed papers on loss prevention and process safety, which will serve long into the future to guide safety people in their work in our industry and beyond.

He finally retired last year at the age of 90, as his old school noted: ‘One of King's oldest Old Boys Trevor Kletz has finally retired - what a career!  Every engineer/technician in the UK and far beyond on any chemical plant will have heard of Trevor, who has much improved the safety of the chemical process industry with his career work.  He certainly deserves his place in the School's Hall of Fame, and all the accolades he has been awarded in his long career - Happy retirement Trevor!’  

Up until then he was still making forthright and insightful statements about safety in the process industry, saying in 2011 that the industry’s ‘macho culture’ was one of the main causes of recent accidents.

Jill Wilday of the Health and Safety Laboratory, who knew him at ICI comments: ‘When I joined ICI in the late 70s he was the Safety Advisor for Petrochemicals Division and his safety newsletter was circulated throughout ICI and was as popular as New Scientist among young engineers.  (This was well before email as a means of sharing information).  The newsletter predominantly described incidents and their recommendations, but always with an opportunity for you to work out what went wrong before reading as far as the conclusions of the internal enquiry.  It was easy and entertaining to read and consequently it was popular, well read, and so it acted to improve everyone's understanding.  He also used humour and those bits in particular were much repeated in conversations in the canteen.’

Andy Rushton, who is now at ESR Technology, was a colleague of Trevor and myself in the Chemical Engineering Department at Loughborough University, where we worked together on inherent safety.  Andy says: ‘He was a great communicator (always top of the poll on the [student feedback] “happy“ sheets) and his forte was distilling his (and others’) experience, drawing out principles and presenting them in a relevant way (not just to process engineers – transport, defence and other sectors have been mightily influenced too).  He could make what he was saying relevant to you and your problems, and could present it with humour, patience and cogency (although not everyone agreed with everything he said).’

His entertaining after-dinner stories further served to make people remember him and his messages.

Not only was he a masterful communicator, both written and verbally, but he also had the insight to reduce seemingly complicated issues to the simple fundamentals and to understand which were important.  He knew that he could save lives by spreading his insights and he had the perseverance, patience and generosity to repeat his messages until heard and understood.

I have received many communications extolling Trevor’s many virtues and achievements but it is his generosity that shines through.  Whether it was the help and encouragement he gave to colleagues and, in particular younger people, such as PhD students or those embarking on a career in safety, or his willingness to travel to wherever there was an audience or a committee meeting, or his expertise to further research and development.  In all the time I worked with him at Loughborough, money or any other reward was never mentioned.  Many people have told me that Trevor inspired them to work in safety, including Professor Jai Gupta, Director of the Rajiv Ghandi Institute of Petroleum Technology, who says that: ‘he was truly a gentleman and a scholar’.  

So what were his messages?  Well, if you don’t know, you should do!  I recommend that you read his books and if you only read one, choose ‘Process Plants: A Handbook for Inherently Safer Design’, now in its second edition and co-authored by Professor Paul Amyotte of Dalhousie University.  The inherently safer approach aims to eliminate or reduce hazards or exposure to them or the chance of occurrence by design.  Most people will say that it is common sense, and it is, but it took Trevor to cast this common sense into a practical philosophy.  There are undoubtedly tens, probably hundreds, possibly thousands of people who each day go home to their families and will do for many years to come, but who are only with us because of decisions influenced by this light that Trevor shone to lead our way.

This is not the only area where his clear thinking has changed the way we think and act.  His writings on human error and accident investigation refocused the emphasis away from individual lapses to systems failures and safer design.  These concepts fostered a revolution in modern safety management thinking.  In a video that he made for the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, Trevor says: ‘For a long time, people were saying that most accidents were due to human error and this is true in a sense but it's not very helpful.  It's a bit like saying that falls are due to gravity.’

A theme that runs through Trevor’s work is drawing lessons from accidents and his mantra: ‘organisations have no memory’ should be a constant watchword.  However, my favourite amongst his many sayings is: ‘There's an old saying that if you think safety is expensive, try an accident. Accidents cost a lot of money. And, not only in damage to plant and in claims for injury, but also in the loss of the company's reputation.’ Trevor was a firm believer that people should be persuaded by sound reason to take the safer course.

I could go on but space is limited; I have not even mentioned HAZard and Operability (HAZOP) studies and Quantified Risk Assessment (QRA), which he had a hand in developing and promoting.

Outside of his professional life and vocation, Trevor was very active in the Jewish community and had a strong interest in steam trains.  He also lived in a bungalow.  This is inherently safer, because the hazards due to stairs, which are the biggest cause of accidents in the home, have been eliminated.  He always wore belt and braces, so that there were two layers of protection against his trousers falling down; he probably had a piece of string in his pocket just in case!

Professor Sam Mannan, of the Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A&M University, sums up his life and work well: ‘Some have characterized Trevor as a scholar, some have called him an astute practitioner, and some hold him in high regard for his unique ability to transform complex issues into simple messages that he communicated in his unique way.  Above all, Trevor was a visionary and a trailblazer, the likes of whom come in our midst only every few centuries.’

It is an honour to write this obituary for a great man, whom I had the privilege of working with and calling my friend and mentor.  It behoves us all to honour his memory by following his teaching and example in our professional and personal lives by learning from past incidents and making all of our endeavours inherently safer.

My IChemE

IChemE is a registered charity in England & Wales (214379), and a charity registered in Scotland (SC 039661).