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One of my job responsibilities is to educate new hires on reactive hazards and the basics of electrostatic discharge safety in the chemical manufacturing environment. The attendees are usually new plant operators with the occasional analytical chemist also in attendance. The educational background for the operators is nearly always a high school diploma with work experience of widely varying duration in non-chemical industries. Since we are far from the regional chemical manufacturing centers in the USA, we rarely encounter applicants from our industrial sector. Commonly the analysts arrive with a BA/BS in chemistry, biochemistry, or even biology sometime in the past.

In their 1 to 2 weeks of introductory training I’m given 1 hour for each of the 2 topics- barely enough time to wedge in important vocabulary let alone develop a command of, well, anything. My approach is to first talk about the difference between hazard and danger with some folksy examples. Then I introduce the general concept of stability using examples boxes on a rising incline. From there, we talk about stability as related to variously truncated inverted conical objects. The notion of instability, meta-stability, and stability are teased out of examples of the tipsiness of inverted cones leading to a change of state under the influence of external forces. This is very concrete and primes the mind to begin to grapple with the abstract notion of substances undergoing change depending on the precariousness of their initial state or the intensity of external influence.

Synthetic chemistry is very much about the careful manipulation of instability in order to produce the sort of change that is desired. Highly stable materials, i.e. sand, are not desirable in a chemical synthesis minimally because they are resistant to alteration. Many reaction steps may be performed and much cost incurred in order to produce features (functional groups) that are sufficiently unstable to undergo the series of desired connections.

After all of the above, the remainder of the hour is spent talking about chemical hazards and how some of them may be passivated by paying attention to the fire triangle. Also the matter of chemical compatibility is introduced as well as the existence of various categories of substances with examples. Of course, this means nothing to them. It’s just a bunch of new words arranged in unfamiliar ways. I’m quite well aware of this, but the purpose is to prime the pump so that when they hear these solvent names and words like acidic, caustic, basic, pH, quench, etc., then can begin the long process of connecting the dots to produce a better picture of their workspace.

The topic of ESD – electrostatic discharge – has its own peculiar challenges. First of all, static charge is invisible, pervasive, and unless you have direct measurements, provides hazards of an unknown risk. To understand ESD hazards, the learner should be exposed to the units describing static charge. These include the Coulomb (C), the volt (Joules/C), the Joule (J), area charge density (µC/m^2), power (Watts = J/sec), the Ohm (Ω = V/A) and the Siemens (S = 1/Ω), and the Ampere (A = C/sec).

Herein lies the real point of this essay. In teaching ESD safety for 4-5 years, I have met perhaps 2 attendees (engineers) out of many dozens who recall having taken coursework relating to basic electricity. I always begin the seminar by taking a poll on who has heard of Ohm’s Law. In reality, I don’t expect electrical proficiency from folks who have not worked in an electrical field. What surprises me is that so few can recall having heard of Ohm’s Law. How is it that we are letting so many people graduate from high school without some course work introducing the very basics of electricity?? This related to one of the most pervasive and influential technologies in our time. I think this is a stunning oversight.

“A’hem, cough cough,” you sputter, “but surely …” –short pause for effect- “… students who have taken high school physics have had instruction in electricity,” you reply with obvious incredulity.

If you had said this you’d be correct. But the educational profile of many factory workers doesn’t seem to include many people who have, in our experience, taken physics in high school. Those from the electrical trades tend not to show up from the temp agency for screening.

So let me end this by asking the mandarins of our school districts why we let students not college bound  graduate without some background in the basics of electricity or electronics? To repeat, this is a stunning oversight, given the extensive use of electrical functions and objects in our lives.

 

 

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