Save 31% During Our First Time Ever Cyber Tuesday Sale—Use Promo Code: CYBERTUESDAY Before Midnight. *Restrictions apply.

Principles of Health, Safety, and Environment (HSE) in Chemical Engineering

  • 08 July, 2022

Health, safety, and environment (HSE) is essential in the engineering industry as well as all other industries. Every company/employer should have a safety program and many employers offer training courses based on Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines. You should check OSHA occasionally for industry updates, including press releases, incidents, citations, and violations. OSHA publishes a list of fatalities and tracks records for different seasonal and industry trends; falls and trench collapses are frequently recorded as leading causes of fatalities in the industry. HSE is a Topic on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) Chemical exam (5-8 Questions), so you certainly want to keep your knowledge of the subject matter fresh. You will also find that some things you learn in the industry will appear on the FE and Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exams (blowdown was a familiar topic that I saw on the PE Exam).

Principles of Health, Safety, and Environment (HSE) in Chemical Engineering

1. FE Reference Handbook

The FE Reference Handbook (v 10.0.1) also includes a safety section, which provides good information, not just during the FE Exam, but also in the industry. I recently completed a noise study for a new station design, and I was reviewing the FE Reference Handbook myself for decibel requirements. Different regulatory bodies develop codes and standards that govern safety laws and good practices; you may see a question like this on the FE exam where you must identify the organization's function based on acronym only (e.g., OSHA, ANSI, UL). Some FE exam questions may come directly from the Handbook, so you may want to mentally bookmark the pages on topics such as confined space, flammability, and toxicology.

2. Safety Data Sheets

One section from the NCEES format for FE Chemical is about Safety Data Sheets (SDS). This is also referred to as a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS); the naming might be a little different, but the purpose for both SDS and MSDS is the same. The SDS provides information about potential hazards in both the workplace and laboratory environments. There are 16 sections in the SDS, including subjects such as toxicology, transport, disposal, and regulatory. This aids in the development of training programs to ensure good safety practices and controlled use of pesticides so they are handled carefully without damaging human and environmental health. Manufacturers, importers, and distributors are required by the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) to provide SDS information for their products. More information about the SDS is included in the FE Reference Handbook (v 10.0.1, p. 18).

3. Hazard Rating Diamond

Another common symbol that you will see in the industry is the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Hazard Rating Diamond (NFPA 704: Standard System for the Identification of the Hazards of Materials for Emergency Response). There are four (4) diamonds within the central diamond: Flammability (Red), Health (Blue), Reactivity (Yellow), and Special Notice (White). These hazard assessments are also included in the FE Reference Handbook (v 10.0.1, p. 14). Candidates for the PE Fire Protection exam will certainly become more familiar with the flammability features. But remember, the NFPA Diamond applies to all industries since you can have different forms of fire (e.g., chemical, electrical, etc.) and other hazards. Safety is truly apparent in every engineering discipline, and there certainly is overlap. For example, NFPA 70 is a fire protection code, but it's also the standard for the National Electrical Code (NEC). And the NEC covers safety for electrical design, installation, and inspection.

4. Industrial Hygiene

Industrial hygiene is another HSE section on the FE Chemical exam. Toxicity is part of the SDS and has the capability of causing illness. Prevention is the key to maintaining good health, but as an engineer, you must understand that risk management is part of the industry. There will always be some level of risk in any kind of engineering design (e.g., plant design, bridge design, vehicle design, etc.). Risk exists in all walks of life and is part of all industries. In the financial world, risk is more related to investments and the stock market, but risk is more discussed in the engineering industry since engineering is much more tangible and can directly impact both human life and property.

5. Defining Risk

The FE Reference Handbook defines risk as being equivalent to Hazard x Probability or Hazard x Exposure (v 10.0.1, p. 13). The key takeaway with toxicity is that longer exposure at a higher concentration produces a more severe hazard. Always remember that toxicity occurs due to exposure and inhalation; if you can mitigate and avoid these two factors, then you have a better chance of reducing your risk severity. I interned at a nuclear power plant one summer, and one of the safety measures was being mindful of radiation poisoning from exposure. Whenever in the nuclear plant, employees were required to wear dosimeters to measure radiation exposure over a time period. As expected, the closer you were to the nuclear reactor, the higher exposure from the increased concentration. And the longer you were near the reactor, the greater the radiation reading on your dosimeter. I likened the COVID-19 pandemic to radiation poisoning; that is, the longer I may have been exposed to COVID-19 and the larger the crowd of affected persons, the greater my risk was of testing positive for COVID-19 myself. Thankfully, I avoided large crowds and potentially affected individuals, so I have not tested positive (similar to mitigating both time and radiation concentration).

6. Noise Exposure

Like toxic exposure, noise exposure is also a similar risk; the longer time and higher concentration, the greater risk you have of experiencing hearing loss. Again, prevention and avoidance are the best safety measure, but engineers must occasionally foray into hazardous environments. In many cases, it is part of the job description. As mentioned earlier, I have recently completed a noise study, and the recommended OSHA noise exposure limits are listed in the FE Reference Handbook (v 10.0.1, p. 33). It is always interesting to see the actual applications come to life, from the textbook literature to industry. Noise abatement is the practice of reducing undesirable sound in processes and equipment to an acceptable level that will not be damaging to human health and the environment.

7. Using PPE TO Mitigate Hearing Damage

Noise exposure also requires the use of proper personal protective equipment (PPE). You should not estimate the importance of hearing protection; I worked with a welding inspector who explained to me that while he was always good with his eye protection, he should have been better with his hearing protection and may have incurred some hearing loss over the course of his career. Ergonomics is the study of human efficiency in the working environment and plays a role in determining hearing thresholds. Charts and frequencies for hearing ergonomics are included in the FE Reference Handbook (v 10.0.1, p. 429). Industrial Engineering is primarily focused on developing efficient processes, so industrial engineers will more likely encounter ergonomics compared to other engineering disciplines. PPE should also be included in section 8 of the SDS as a safety precaution.

8. Hazard and Operability Studies

A Hazard and Operability (HAZOP) study is another method for identifying potential hazards in the workplace. Conducting a HAZOP study prior to beginning work is a good way to evaluate risk based on the equations described earlier and can help to mitigate risk severity. My first engineering position involved a lot of fieldwork, so I was outside often. While it was nice to enjoy the fresh air rather than always sitting at a desk all day, there were outdoor hazards (e.g., weather, traffic conditions, flora and fauna, etc.). Before meeting with contractors and beginning construction, I always visited the job site to survey the area, scouting for any potential hazards or obstructions that may impede job success. This ranged anywhere from identifying culverts or other utility lines that could be damaged to reviewing wetlands delineation studies for projects that were in environmentally sensitive areas. Bog turtles and hogweed were amongst noteworthy items that required consideration.


Essentially, I would conduct my own HAZOP study to gauge site conditions. You should always be reading and learning from your co-workers, managers, and peers as there is always something new to learn. Remember, subjects like HSE and risk management are part of both industry and life, extending beyond the workplace. I would also recommend checking frequently with School of PE for more blog posts and discussion topics. It could help with your next job site and/or job search!

Have you always wanted to become a chemical engineer? Consider taking an FE Chemical exam review course with School of PE to help you achieve this goal! We offer multiple course options to best fit your busy schedule-register today!

About the Author: Gregory Nicosia

Gregory Nicosia, PE is an engineer who has been practicing in the industry for eight years. His background includes natural gas, utilities, mechanical, and civil engineering. He earned his chemical engineering undergraduate degree at Drexel University (2014) and master's in business administration (MBA) from Penn State Harrisburg (2018). He received his EIT designation in 2014 and PE license in 2018. Mr. Nicosia firmly believes in continuing to grow his skillset to become a more well-rounded engineer and adapt to an ever-changing world.

Blogs you might also like

Copied to clipboard

Notification Banner