Ming Yang has lots of experience teaching people about safety from very basic concepts. When he arrived at Nazarbayev University, in Kazakhstan, in 2017, he became the first professor to teach chemical process safety to undergraduate engineering students at the school. Before then, students had been given basic protective equipment such as goggles, but that was about the extent of their health and safety training. When Yang ventured out of the lab to do research in Kazakhstan’s growing petrochemical industry, he realized that process safety was only just emerging there, too, and he found that businesses were initially reluctant to cooperate with him.
Yang moved to Delft University of Technology in June 2020 to join a new initiative to improve chemical process safety management. He is developing a software tool to continuously assess system resilience and safety. Through this work and collaborations with industry and government, Yang hopes to get people outside his field to respect safety research as they would any other scientific pursuit.
Benjamin Plackett spoke with Yang, who is an associate editor of ACS Chemical Health & Safety, about his work in safety and how it has led him across the globe (ACS also publishes C&EN). This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
▸ Hometown: Shanghai
▸ Current position: Assistant professor of safety and security science, Delft University of Technology
▸ Education: BEng, chemical and materials engineering, Shanghai University, 2006; MS, environmental systems engineering, 2008, and PhD, oil and gas engineering, 2011, Memorial University of Newfoundland
▸ Motivation: “To make researchers in other fields respect safety science as a discipline in its own right.”
▸ Book recommendation: The Book of Why, by Judea Pearl, because “it explains the fundamentals in layman’s language of what uncertainty is and how we can find a causal relationship between what happens and how we can predict what will happen.”
▸ Special interest: Soccer. “I play every week. I also enjoy watching and playing e-soccer games.”
Tell me about your background and what drew you to safety science as a discipline.
I am originally from China; I was born in Shanghai in the 1980s. I studied for my bachelor’s in chemical and materials engineering at Shanghai University. Then I went to Canada in 2006, and I did my master’s in environmental systems engineering and my PhD in oil and gas engineering at Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada.
You might say it’s all quite multidisciplinary. But the link between all these subjects is the safety element, and that’s what brought me to the research that I’m doing now.
In 2017, I moved to Kazakhstan in central Asia because I got an offer I couldn’t refuse from one of the youngest universities there, Nazarbayev University. It’s now only 10 years old.
Kazakhstan is resource rich, with a lot of oil, gas, and different kinds of metal mines. So I thought, OK, this is a place where I can apply some of my knowledge to try to help industries develop their safety management systems. When I got there, people in industry told me they had never actually thought that people do research in safety. Students told me they’d never had a course in chemical process safety.
How receptive were industry and the university to you and your ideas?
They thought health and safety was only about personal protective equipment—goggles, gloves, white suits, and that was it. I said no, safety is much more than that. It’s a very multidisciplinary area. You have to use your knowledge of chemistry, physics, and mathematics to deal with all of the safety issues. It’s not just about yourself but the entire life cycle of your process.
I can give you an example. One of the projects I had was with one of Kazakhstan’s biggest, state-owned companies in the oil and gas industry. I proposed to look at the risk-based inspection and maintenance of their pipelines. I said, “We need to do this in order to ensure safety, because when you have leaks of flammable or toxic materials, it’s not good because of potential fires and explosions.” But company officials said they didn’t care too much about that because fire and explosion accidents were rare. They also didn’t want to share some of the incident data.
Then I met someone from the Ministry of Energy at a conference organized by the government, and I explained the concept of how a risk-based approach can save money, ensure safety, and also improve productivity. I found that when I got the government involved, companies started to be more willing to continue discussions with me. Eventually, we came up with a proposal including the government, industry, and university to develop a consortium to do the research.
Why did you move to the Netherlands?
I was actually a little bit hesitant to move. The safety and security science section that I am now part of at Delft is a small department with limited influence. We don’t have our own bachelor’s degree programs, which means I have less interaction with the students who are going to be the next generation of chemical safety engineers. So that’s something I worry about.
But the Netherlands is trying to establish itself as a leader in petrochemical safety management systems. They have recently announced a project called the Safety Network Netherlands. That’s something that really fascinated and attracted me.
What research project are you working on at the moment?
My recent research interest is in resilience engineering. If you look into risk management, people only really look at how to prevent accidents and how to mitigate the consequences. But what about emergency planning and recovery? I think that’s going to be the next generation of approaches that people need to think about in order to cover the whole life cycle: preaccident, in-accident, and postaccident stages.
A good example is the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan in 2011. They had a very nice design, and they thought that they could manage the risks. Then there was a very surprising and unanticipated event, which was an earthquake and a tsunami coming together. The recovery plan was not very good.
We need to look into how we can design not only safe systems but also more resilient systems. Even if a system fails, how can we recover it? How fast can we recover it? We need to consider this in the design stage, not in the later operational stage. That might be too late.
That’s why I’m developing a software tool to give a quantitative measurement of how resilient a system is with a value between zero and one. The software can include human judgment as an input, alongside other operational parameters to provide feedback in real time. This approach is generic, so it can be used in construction sites, engineering systems, or university labs. It can be easily adapted.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected this work?
Not too much, to be honest, because we just needed to set up an office at home. Although I think working from home did slow the progression of our work somewhat, in terms of productivity and communication with our peers.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to follow you in a similar career path?
I would tell my younger self after getting a bachelor’s degree to go into industry to find out what problems the industry has. Then you can use that experience to know that you’re coming up with useful solutions during your graduate studies. I have met quite a few students—and this was true for me—who go directly to graduate school and struggle to find research goals that are meaningful for industry.
So the message to younger students is that they should at least do some internships or get a few years’ industrial experience before they continue with academia, so they know exactly the area that they want to work on.
Benjamin Plackett is a freelance writer based in London. A version of this story first appeared in ACS Chemical Health & Safety: cenm.ag/mingyang.
Sign up for C&EN's must-read weekly newsletter