Plant & Works Engineering
Leading chemical engineers to feature in documentary
Published:  17 January, 2020

Three leading chemical engineers and Fellows of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) are featuring as experts in a new 10-part television documentary focused on engineering safety incidents from across the world which aired on the UK Discovery Channel on 15 January.

Dame Judith Hackitt, chair of Make UK, Fiona Macleod, chair of the IChemE Loss Prevention Bulletin editorial panel, and Geoffrey Maitland, Professor of Energy Engineering at Imperial College London, will give their technical accounts and share insights into what professionals working in safety and hazardous industries have learned from several of the 20 engineering incidents featured in the Disasters Engineered documentary series.

The documentary series will feature a variety of chemical, structural, and mechanical engineering incidents in various sectors – from oil, nuclear, and gas to mining, space travel, and construction. Each episode will look at the causes of two incidents, why and how they happened, how they affected people, and what changes and decisions have been made in the industry as a result.

Hackitt, the former chair of the Health and Safety Executive and past president of IChemE, led an independent review into the regulation of high-rise buildings following the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in the UK. In the documentary, she will reflect on the importance of safe practices and considerations when altering structural and construction design. She explains:

“The important thing about learning from failure is looking at what really went wrong. It’s not enough to look at the specifics of the failure. You’ve got to understand the real root causes, which often means system failures that could have been picked up before the accident occurred.

“There are much bigger lessons to be learned from failures. These lessons can be learned and applied across sectors and disciplines, so it’s important that we collectively encourage a culture that responds in a constructive way to the reporting of these incidents and sharing lessons to help prevent future occurrences.”

Maitland, also a past president of IChemE, will feature in episode one, which examines the Challenger space shuttle explosion and the Deepwater Horizon incident in which an estimated 4.9 million barrels worth of oil from the BP-operated Macondo Well leaked into the sea in the Gulf of Mexico, USA in 2010.

An expert in deep-water drilling in the oil and gas industry, he took part in more than 50 media interviews at the time of the incident. Following this incident, he chaired the independent review of the UK Offshore Oil and Gas Regulatory Regime (‘The Maitland Report’) in 2011.

He also reviewed some footage for the episode to ensure it gave a factual representation of the incident.

Maitland said:

“Thankfully incidents like those featured are rare, but they highlight that engineering processes are complicated and require skilled engineering professionals, careful management, and clear communication to manage them effectively, and minimise damage and losses when issues do occur. I took part in this documentary because it is vital that a factual account is given of the incident, and to help the public be better informed of technical processes and engineering issues, especially when incidents become widely reported upon across the world.

“It’s important to note that technical processes and complex hazards are being managed effectively by engineers on a daily basis. It is our responsibility as engineers to learn from incidents and share knowledge of good practices, in a culture of continuous improvement, so that our processes are as safe as possible.”

In the documentary, Macleod will feature in two episodes. One examines the Chernobyl nuclear explosion in Ukraine and the gas leak in Bhopal, India; the other looks at the explosions at a factory in Tianjin, China and at the Evangelos Florakis naval base in Cyprus. She will give her technical account of incident investigations, and theoretical and determined causes of several of these incidents.

Macleod said:

“Managing hazards safely requires the utmost skill and commitment at a day-to-day operational level and at board level. Teamwork between disciplines throughout a project’s life is key. Although manufacturing is becoming cleaner and safer, the tragic incidents within this documentary serve as reminders that we must never become complacent.

“At IChemE we share best practice and lessons in process safety through our member communities, training courses and articles in the Loss Prevention Bulletin (a 45-year archive of lessons learned from incidents). We also run a leading process safety conference called Hazards (held annually in the UK, Australasia and Asia Pacific) and the IChemE Safety Centre, a not-for-profit industry consortium focussed on sharing knowledge, produces various case studies and guidance materials.

“We must continue to share lessons with financial decision-makers, politicians, our peers in academia, industry, across the different sectors and engineering disciplines to enhance safety for everyone and wider society.”

IChemE is also supporting the process safety industry community to produce a new compendium to demonstrate how the best stories of process safety expert Trevor Kletz are still relevant today.

Watch the documentary on the UK Discovery Channel. Episode 1 begins at 22:00 on 15 January.

Find out more online at

Image caption: 

(From left to right:) Geoffrey Maitland, Judith Hackitt and Fiona Macleod features in UK Discovery Channel documentary Disasters Engineered