Thomas Michael O’Connor, 1953–2022

Article by Trish Kerin CEng FIChemE

Michael O’Connor was passionate about equipping future generations with process safety knowledge

THOMAS Michael O’Connor, who dedicated his life to educating chemical engineers about the importance of process safety following the tragic death of his wife, has died aged 68.

Michael was born in Dennison, Texas. He graduated from the Missouri University of Science and Technology in 1977 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemical Engineering. Over his career he worked at M.W Kellogg and supported various technical startups.

In 1989, Michael’s life was turned upside down in an instant, when his wife, Mary Kay was killed following the explosion on 23 October at the Phillips Petroleum Complex in Pasadena, Texas. A chemical engineer, she was an operations superintendent at the facility. This tragic event changed the course of his life. Michael knew the pain of a process safety incident and dedicated his life to preventing others feeling that pain. This led him to becoming the founding sponsor and a research associate of the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center (MKOPSC), at the Texas A&M University in College Station. MKOPSC commenced operations more than 20 years ago with an aim to make safety second nature and to ensure that when a chemical engineer graduates they have a knowledge of process safety and can pursue post graduate studies in safety. The Arti McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering also has the T. Michael O’Connor Chair II, in his honour.

I first met Michael in 2014 in College Station Texas when I attended my first Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center International Symposium. He was a quiet and reserved man who observed the activities taking place around him, soaking up knowledge. I also saw a man who was intensely passionate about equipping future generations with the process safety knowledge they need to stay safe at work. Michael tended to take a less public role at the MKOPSC as a research associate, working in the background, developing papers and challenging the status quo about how we learn process safety. Following the passing of MKOPSC Director Sam Mannan in 2018, Michael took a more visible leadership role at the centre, steering through the transition and advocating for process safety education. His dedication to this cause has undoubtedly saved lives, and will continue to in the process industries. The MKOPSC is an amazing legacy from both Michael and Mary Kay. I considered Michael a friend, and looked forward to seeing him each October in College Station. He will be sadly missed by the MKOPSC fraternity.

Michael is survived by his mother Beverly, his sister Anita Loraine, and nephews Brian, Daniel and Sean.

Article by Trish Kerin CEng FIChemE

Director - IChemE Safety Centre

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