Poetry at Work: An Engineer’s Passion for Safety Inspires Industry

In the August Oil and Gas Facilities, I wrote about the inherency of poetry in our work and how it helps define who we are. In this issue, I share a remarkable example of poetry at work in the mind and heart of an engineer and how it resonated with people and helped to change an industry.

fluid spilling from a beaker on surfaces

In the August Oil and Gas Facilities, I wrote about the inherency of poetry in our work and how it helps define who we are. In this issue, I share a remarkable example of poetry at work in the mind and heart of an engineer and how it resonated with people and helped to change an industry.

Harold Corbett, a chemical engineer who was then a senior vice president at Monsanto, stood in front of 1,500 chemical engineers at a 1988 Institution of Chemical Engineers/American Institute of Chemical Engineers meeting in London. He was there to speak about the public’s increasingly negative perceptions of the chemical industry and what the industry and chemical engineers had to do to address those perceptions.

And he had to tell them the public was right.

It was a time when the chemical industry was not generally applauded. For almost three decades, popular, literary, and news media had been castigating the industry for what many considered crimes against the environment. Among the drivers of the criticism were Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, which was published in 1962 and documented the detrimental effects on the environment of the indiscriminate use of pesticides, especially dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT); the cleanup of “Superfund” sites (e.g., Love Canal in New York, 1978) contaminated with hazardous substances under a United States federal law; and Union Carbide’s pesticide plant disaster in Bhopal, India (1984).

Corbett had never written a poem in his life, had not likely even read one since college, and yet, he was speaking with the soul and passion of a poet to a group of engineering peers.

They listened. The engineer with the soul of a poet spoke, and ultimately, an industry was changed, as will be explained below.

My role in helping Corbett prepare for his speech was to take notes, do some research, be a sounding board, and help him find some stories and examples. His passion was infectious, and listening to him speak was inspiring and moving.

I worked on the draft for months. The conclusion, which we worked over together, recreated what had happened at Bhopal. It described what the industry could never let happen again, and what could be done to achieve that.

Corbett went off to London for the speech. After he had spoken, his secretary called me at work, saying that all she knew was that it had gone well. “Oh, one other thing—he said they want him to videotape it,” she said. That was an even better indication of how the speech had been received.

When he returned from the trip, Corbett called me and said, “You won’t believe what happened. They stood up and cheered. Fifteen hundred engineers stood up and cheered.”

The videotape was made and distributed to chemical engineering societies throughout Britain and the United States. Requests for copies of the speech poured in. News media called; the BBC asked for an interview. Six years later, the company was still receiving requests for copies of the speech. One communications association recognized the speech as the best corporate speech of the year.

Not everything we do has that kind of impact. But the poetry within us allows us to dream, to create, to innovate, and do remarkable things.

I would like to share Corbett’s speech. Its message—and inspiration—is as applicable today as it was 25 years ago. Enjoy.

—Glynn Young

Chemical Risk: Living Up to Public Expectations

More than 100 years ago, a famous American spoke at a meeting of the Whitefriars Club here in London. Mark Twain loved this city, and he was loved and admired in return. During a speech in 1881, Twain gave his audience some very simple advice: When in doubt, tell the truth.

Without a doubt, I’m pleased to be a part of this meeting. And the truth is that this meeting is vital to our industry for a number of reasons.

First, it is an example of the attention we pay to chemical safety. As you all know, there are very few issues that so command public attention for an extended period of time. The question of chemical safety—safety of our processes and the safety of our products—is one issue that has certainly captured public attention. And, sorry to say, captured public attention in a negative way.

Second, this meeting has brought some of the best minds in chemical engineering together to focus on major environmental accidents  and what we can do to prevent them. Every one of us here knows that one Bhopal is one too many—and it must never, never happen again.

Third, this group is vital to our industry. The success of the chemical industry in the 20th century has been due, in large part, to the chemical engineers who figured out the way to make the products that have incredibly increased the quality of life for all people.

And the chemical engineer is just as important for the future. For it is in process design and control that change must continue to occur, if we are truly to prevent accidents, and if we are to meet the expectations the public has of this industry.

I believe this change will continue, that we will continue to make breakthroughs in process design that will not only prevent the Bhopals, but reduce or eliminate the routine emissions and waste generated by chemical plants. More to the point, I believe we have no choice—the public demands nothing less.

That’s what I would like to talk about with you today: chemical risks and how we must live up to public expectations about those risks.

I’m reminded of the story about a famous philosopher, called upon to settle a war between two great nations. “They were the aggressors first,” said the leader of the one nation. And the philosopher said, “You’re right.”

The leader of the other nation protested. “No! They were the aggressors first.” And the philosopher said, “You’re right.”

Both leaders looked at one another and said to the philosopher, “We both can’t be right.” And the philosopher said, “You’re right.”(PAUSE) And he promptly sent both countries a bill for his consulting fee.

Like those two nations, we have two, very real chemical industries.

There is the chemical industry that is the technological success story of the 20th century—the one that has played a major role in the improvement of the quality of life around the world.

This is the industry that has dramatically increased the quantity and quality of food production.

This is the industry that is responsible for the remarkable development of man-made fibers, safety glass, plastics, aspirin, and other pharmaceuticals, and a host of other products that make our lives safer, more comfortable, and more enjoyable.

This is the industry that prides itself on its safety record, with better accident prevention, illness, and fatality records than virtually any other industry in the world.

And this is the industry that has contributed billions to philanthropies, communities, and society and has made major investments in protecting the environment.

There is a second chemical industry.

This is the industry that is seen as having contaminated the food supply with pesticides and the water supply with fertilizers and other chemicals.

This is the industry whose products are believed to expose the public to a veritable ocean of carcinogens.

This is the industry that is seen as responsible for the deaths of almost 3,000 people at Bhopal; for massive pollution of the Rhine River; for the dioxin contamination at Seveso, Italy, and Times Beach, Missouri; and for hazardous waste sites that litter the landscape in all the industrialized countries; and for pollution of drinking water.

This is the industry that talks a good game of risks and benefits, but in practice gives society the risks and retains the benefits for itself.

Both of these chemical industries are real; both perspectives are correct. The conflict between the two is not a conflict about the facts themselves, but, instead, which facts are relevant. The biases of the individual positions have resulted in dramatic—and crucial—differences in perspective.
Every one of us here has experienced this conflict. The question is how much longer we can reasonably expect the conflict to continue.

The chemical industry and the public have lived this conflict for at least 2 decades. The conflict has not been resolved, despite the flood of legislation and regulation, and despite the spending of billions to comply with regulation.

And the conflict will not be resolved, as long as all the parties concerned maintain their traditional responses. I’d like to look at these traditional responses—how the industry has responded and how the public has responded—because they are the key to understanding the conflict.

The chemical industry has had two basic responses to public concerns. The first is that there is a technical solution.

And often there is. But when we think of technical solution, we usually think of a better risk assessment, or an improved quantification of risk, or an informed judgment by independent experts. Those are all important. But they are not a complete solution.

We see some of the most extreme forms of this in the United States, with various proposals that have been put forward for a “science court,” which we in industry, of course, believe would determine scientific and risk issues on a rational, objective basis.

But by placing these issues almost exclusively in the hands of judicial and technical experts, such proposals move the solutions even further from the public. But these proposals do not address the public’s concerns—the public is left with its fears while the experts make the decisions.

This technical approach assumes that the public is either too ignorant of science and technology or doesn’t care about the complex details involved in the issues.

Both assumptions are wrong.

The public isn’t ignorant, and the public does care about the fine print. All you have to do to prove that is to attend a public hearing in the United States about a proposal for cleaning up a waste site. You will learn that people care deeply about what happens in their communities.

The second traditional approach by the industry is closely related to our technical bias. And this approach is the belief that we must educate the public—that we should have a public education campaign about chemicals. This response is also inherently flawed.

Typically, this approach focuses upon making the public understand, and thus accept,  industry’s point of view. It springs from the belief that industry is right and the public is wrong, and if we educate the public, all of our problems will go away.

There is nothing wrong with education, but it begins at home. We in industry must first educate ourselves. And the first lesson for us to learn is that we are not always right, that the public has legitimate concerns about our processes and products, concerns that we have not even begun to address. Typically, everything we do must make scientific sense and marketing sense. But everything we do must also make good public sense—and that is where we have failed.

The public also has traditional responses to the conflict between itself and the industry.

The public wants the benefits of chemistry, but not its liabilities.

The public is not interested in having us tell them how far we have come, but only in how far we have to go. It is not impressed by reduced air and water pollution, or the lowering of hazards to communities, or the progressmade in cleaning up waste dumps. From the public’s point of view, this is the bare minimum of what it expects from the industry.

Instead, the public wants no pollution, it wants no hazard to communities, it wants no environmental damage, and no unsafe products. Of course, neither do we.

And if the chemical industry, chemical engineers, and scientists are as innovative as they claim, then the public believes they should be smart enough to eliminate accidents and pollution and still provide society with needed products. In the public’s view, all accidents, and all environmental incidents are acts of negligence or worse, and we should be able to eliminate them.

What happened at Bhopal, on the Rhine River, at Chernobyl, and at Times Beach all have one element in common: They are completely and absolutely unacceptable to the public.

So, what does the industry do? We know that it is physically and scientifically impossible to achieve zero risk. And we know that the public ultimately expects nothing less than zero risk. Like the famous philosopher said, “You’re both right.”

I believe the industry has two choices, in theory. We can continue our efforts to educate the public, or we can accept the public’s concerns and the public’s perspective as legitimate. And then figure out how best we can resolve those concerns and live up to the public’s expectations.

Every time the industry has sought to educate the public, it has failed, except when it has recognized the public’s concerns as legitimate.

We know we have only one real choice. And it poses an enormous technical challenge.

The best way to describe that technical challenge is to suggest what the typical chemical plant will be, 10 years from now—or at least the typical chemical plant that is still operating.

  • It will have clean processes, with any necessary recycling or reclamation of hazardous waste done at the point of production so that no hazardous waste leaves the plant site.
  • Process risk will be reduced to the point where serious accidents do not occur; accidental and routine emissions will be considered a relic of the Stone Age.
  • The people living near the plant site will fully understand how the plant operates and what it manufacturers. They will have full confidence in the people operating the plant, because they know these people make safety the top priority.

Can we do it? Can we meet this enormous technical challenge? I believe we can.
But meeting the technical challenge may be the easiest part of the job. The hard part for the industry will be accepting the public challenge. And that means we will have to take some risks ourselves.

First, we must take the risk of accepting public participation in our operations and decisions. This is now beginning in the United States. Changes being implemented in the Superfund law represent a massive shift of regulatory power from the federal government to the states and to local communities—a shift that represents a transfer of power from the experts in government and industry to the public at large.

Beginning this July, every major manufacturing industry in the United States must report what hazardous chemicals are routinely emitted to air, water, and land. All we have to do is generate and report the data in pounds. The new law doesn’t require us to fix anything, install anything, or clean up anything. Just simply report the data.

We will be reporting emissions of chemicals that are regulated by state and federal standards. And we will also be reporting so-called fugitive emissions, many of which are not regulated and many of which we ourselves have never quantified with the degree of precision required by the new law.

The reaction may well be staggering. If we don’t make a basic change in our approach to public concerns, the public may force us to make it.

The US chemical industry has now begun to seek ways to involve the public in our decision making process in advance. In some cases, individual plants are establishing community advisory groups. In others, our plants are actively working with local political and community leaders and with emergency preparedness professionals to provide information and assistance. In still others, we are making information on individual products available that before had only been shared with those whom we felt needed to know.

Second, in addition to taking the risk of involving the public, we must take the risk of accepting the environmental organizations as legitimate participants in the policy process.

We now accept them grudgingly, usually because the regulators pay close attention to their criticisms and concerns. We can find hundreds of examples of how they develop wrong information, and how they misuse correct information. Every company in the chemical industry has found itself the target of an environmentalist group at least once, and usually much more than once.

But they have a legitimate role to play, because they are given one by the public. And if we have had to deal with the negative information and wrong information they have developed, have we ever tried to provide them with the right information? Have we ever sat down with them and truly listened to their concerns? Have we ever even invited them into our manufacturing facilities to see what happens?

In most cases, the answer to those questions is no.

Third, we must take the risk involved in educating ourselves, our managements, and our employees. We must risk telling them what they may not want to hear because we must serve our companies the best way we know how. As Mark Twain said, “When in doubt, tell the truth.” I would alter that advice to say, “Without a doubt, tell the truth.”

We must make sure that our companies and our industry understands the consequences of individual and collective actions and that every one of us has a vital responsibility in ensuring public safety.

We need to look no further than Bhopal.

A few weeks after that tragedy, a British film crew went to Bhopal and interviewed dozens of people there, victims and non-victims. The resulting program, called “The Killing of Bhopal,” recently aired on public television in the United States. And what it dramatically showed was what we might call the public’s answer to all of our sophisticated risk assessments, risk probabilities, risk quantifications, and public education programs on how safe our industry is.

It showed doctors and nurses frantically trying to learn what had happened, to know how to treat the victims. It showed a mother describing how her baby died in her arms, choking to death. It showed a young wife who watched her husband die. It showed a 12-year-old boy who was the only survivor of his large family.

For all our talk about the safety of chemicals, these scenes from Bhopal are the endpoint of chemical risk. We must live up to what the public expects of us and do our jobs as we know we can.

Anything less is failing the trust we have to the public.

Anything less is failing ourselves.

With your commitment, we will not fail. 

Editor’s note: Harold J. Corbett died at the age of 78 in 2005. In 1950, he began working in Monsanto’s plastics division in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he held technical and management positions and helped develop an electronic instrument system for evaluating and matching colors in plastic resins that is still used in the industry today. While working with Monsanto in Ohio, he helped start and manage the first ABS impact-resistant plastic resin plants in the United States. Corbett returned to manage the Springfield plant before moving to the company’s headquarters in St. Louis,Missouri. He became an executive vice president of Monsanto, responsible for manufacturing, engineering, medicine, safety, and environmental health. Corbett retired in 1991 after a 41-year career.


Corbett, H.J. 1988. Chemical Risk: Living Up to Public Expectations. I.CHEM.E. Symposium Series No. 110. (accessed 19 September 2014).

Glynn Young leads the social media team at a Fortune 500 company based in the Midwest. He is the author of two novels and Poetry at Work, published in 2013 by T.S. Poetry Press. He can be reached at