“I was looking for a way to do meaningful work and seeing how much satisfaction my father derived from his job made me see it was a profession I should be considering.”  — Elizabeth Auld

With stay-at-home orders still in place in many jurisdictions, and good sense dictating them even as the orders are lifted, every day has become “Take Your Child to Work Day”. At this point, you may be running out of ideas for things to do with your children that don’t involve going out. At the same time, your children are seeing what you do, sort of, and may be curious about it. It’s an opportunity to share process safety with your kids.

To help, here are eight ideas. They are not all suited to all ages, and each requires that you take appropriate precautions. But you are safety professionals, you can do this.

  1. Vacuum from Condensing Vapor

This made a huge impression on my children the first time we did it together.  Fill an empty two-liter soda bottle with very hot water. (Not boiling. That will soften the PET to the point that the bottle deforms under its own weight.). Then dump out the water and quickly put the cap back on tightly. As the bottle cools, the water vapor inside condenses, creating a vacuum that will cause the bottle to collapse inward.  It is even more dramatic if you hold the bottle under running cold water, simulating a sudden rain shower. Now ask your children to imagine this happening to a giant storage tank, explaining that this is what happens even when tanks are made out of steel.

  1. Fun With P&IDs

My children were fascinated to watch me prepare for a HazOp. I would take a set of highlighters and a set of P&IDs, and divide the process into nodes. I remember hearing my youngest daughter explain to one of her friends that “My daddy’s job is to color.”

There is a lot that children of all ages can do with an old set of P&IDs. For older children, a set of P&IDs can become a treasure hunt. Explain how the flags for lines coming into or leaving drawings are marked, and have them go through the set, matching incoming lines on one drawing with outgoing lines on another. Or search for vent and drain valves that might be sources of leaks. Or take a highlighter and follow a line from one vessel to all the places it might go. (This is especially interesting with headers and manifolds.)

Or, there’s coloring.  Of course.

  1. Facility Siting – Matches

As social distancing becomes a way of life for your children, there is a wonderful opportunity to help them understand about the concerns of facility siting. The video clips of matches that have gone viral can also serve as lessons about facility siting. You have more options, though. Instead of just removing a match, you can treat it, so it doesn’t burn.  Dip it in water or soap first. Which will also keep the fire from spreading. Whether you use books of matches or wooden matches, practice first to get the distances and spacing right. It’s no good if the fire doesn’t spread because the matches are too far apart, or if the fire jumps the barrier match because they are too close together.

Once you’ve done it, then get your children to talk about how important spacing is, not just in the context of social distancing, but in laying out a plant.

  1. Facility Siting – Blocks and a Ball

Another game to play is to set up blocks or dominoes in an array. Then drop a ball in the middle of them and catch it on its first bounce. How far out do the blocks get knocked down? Is it further than the size of the ball? What if the blocks are closer together, or further apart? Ask them how this would apply to designing a process facility, where there are lots of different units.

  1. Pool Fires

The big three events of process safety are fires, explosions, and toxic releases. One thing you can do with your children is to demonstrate the impact of area on the intensity of pool fires.

You’ll want to do this outside, perhaps in your grill.  Find two containers, one tall and skinny and one short and fat. For instance, a juice can and a cookie sheet. Then, with a flammable liquid—denatured alcohol or rubbing alcohol work well—carefully measure how much it takes to fill the juice can almost to the top. Set the full juice can on the grill, and light it on fire. Have your children observe the fire: how big it is, how smoky it is, how close they can hold their hand before they feel the heat, and anything else that occurs to you or them. After the fire has burnt out or you have carefully extinguished it, set the cookie sheet on the grill and add the same volume of flammable liquid. Light it on fire, and have your children observe this fire. Is it different? Bigger? Smokier? Hotter?

Ask them to think about how what they’ve observed would influence the design of secondary containment for a flammable liquid.

  1. Fire Safety with Hand Sanitizer

Another thing to do at the grill is to demonstrate the flammability of hand sanitizer. No, don’t squirt hand sanitizer on the fire. Instead, take a stick or handle or piece of pipe, and pass it through the flames. Nothing happens.  Now take the same stick or handle or piece of pipe, smear some hand sanitizer on the end of it, and watch what happens. Try the same thing with soap and water. With older children, the exercise can be even more dramatic if you slip the long sleeve from an old shirt around the stick or handle or piece of pipe, attaching it at the “shoulder” with duct tape. It will be especially dramatic if the shirt is made from a synthetic and you “accidentally” get some hand sanitizer on the fabric.

What will this tell them about lathering up with hand sanitizer, especially when soap and water are just as effective. Generally, how does this help them think about weighing the risk of one hazard with the risk of another hazard.

  1. Explosions

Explosions at home are a little hard to pull off. But there are balloons. Try attaching a balloon to bicycle pump with duct tape and then count how many times you have to pump to fill it up and then, to get it to pop. (Sure, you could just blow up the balloon, but I hate it when a balloon pops in my face.) Then, try filling the balloon with water first, then pumping it up.  Is it different?

Our bicycle pump has a pressure gauge built in, so we can check the pressure as we pump up tires and basket balls. If you have one of these fancy-schmancy bicycle pumps, there is a whole new opportunity to collect and analyze data, something your older children might enjoy.

When you are done, you are likely to have balloons left over.  This might the perfect time for a water balloon fight.

  1. Stink Bombs

Is there any way to demonstrate toxic releases safely with children? What usually works is to combine two things that by themselves are familiar and produce something that really stinks. Stinkiness then becomes a metaphor for toxicity.  The problem is that at high enough concentrations, stink is no longer a metaphor; whatever stinks really is toxic.  So, if you decide to try any of these at home, with your own children, make sure the amounts are small and the ventilation is really, really good.  Otherwise, “Don’t try this at home.”

Everyone has heard that they shouldn’t mix household cleaners, especially bleach and, well, anything. Mixing bleach and ammonia forms chloramine vapors. In small amounts, those vapors cause coughing, shortness of breath, wheezing, and nausea. At higher concentrations, chloramine can cause death. Mixing bleach with acids—vinegar, toilet bowl cleaners, some rust removal products—releases chorine gas.  Small amounts can cause irritation of the throat and nose, as well as burning and watery eyes. At higher concentrations, chlorine, too, can cause death.

Mixing spoonfuls, outdoors with plenty of ventilation, and wafting the vapor toward you rather than sticking your nose down in the cup where the cleaners are mixed, can be a very graphic lesson in how toxic gases can be formed and released. It can also be a stark reminder for your older children of the importance of not mixing household cleaners when doing their chores.

When it comes to stink, though, stink bombs might be the answer. I remember making a stink bomb by taking sulfur powder I got from the garden store and paraffin wax shavings, mixing them together and heating the mixture. The wax and sulfur reacted to form hydrogen sulfide, an incredibly poisonous gas. Fortunately, at low concentrations, it just stinks. What a clever prank I thought that was.  Amazingly, sulfur candles are offered for sale as fumigants.

There is a widely available recipe that involves taking a book of matches, cutting the heads off the matches, then combining them with a small amount of household ammonia in a plastic, screw-top bottle. The ammonium hydroxide reacts with the sulfur in the match heads to form ammonium sulfide. It’s not as toxic as hydrogen sulfide, but it still packs an olfactory wallop. At room temperature, it takes 3 or 4 days to reach full strength, making it much more controllable than any of the other stinky ideas.

After your children have had a whiff of toxic exposure, it may be a good time to get them to think about things like a reactivity matrix and safety data sheets.

It’s an Ill Wind That Blows No Good

This pandemic has forced many of us to stay home with our children. On the upside, though, this pandemic has given many of us a chance to stay home with our children. We have a lot to share with them and now, the opportunity to share. Let’s not miss it. Things will get back to normal, so let’s take advantage of the opportunities while we can.