Readers celebrate apprenticeships, near-miss reporting and plants in urban areas

Long service rewards

The article on apprenticeships brought a flood of happy memories from 1955–60 when I was a chemistry apprentice. I had left school at 16 to work in the laboratory of a shipping firm in Liverpool, UK, and found that I could go to college one day a week to study chemistry under the Royal Institute of Chemistry (RIC) scheme. The scheme seemed to be similar to engineering schemes comprising Ordinary National Certificates (ONC), Higher National Certificates (HNC) and then a two-part system to become an Associate of the Royal Institute of Chemistry (ARIC).

There were four chemistry apprentices in that laboratory, at different levels of study; the senior apprentice, about to take his ARIC exams, encouraged me each morning to write out part of the periodic table (a row or column) on a big slate sample table. I learnt all about that table. After passing ONC I moved employer to work in an antibiotic company and studied for HNC. The RIC offered to allow high scorers in HNC to bypass the first part of the ARIC exams and go straight for the second part. Further, my employer offered five scholarships across the country to chemistry apprentices who satisfied the new RIC bypass scheme. The scholarships would allow the apprentice to attend college full-time to study for the ARIC exam; I managed to get one of those scholarships and attended the Liverpool College of Technology (now John Moores University), passing my Grad RIC after that year. My last practical exam (after five days of them) was on Friday 3 June 1960. It was also my 21st birthday! I returned to work, still as an apprentice in the eyes of the RIC – graduate members had to complete two years of meaningful high level professional chemistry work before qualifying as an ARIC.

During all that study I had caught the research bug, so I wanted to study for a PhD in chemistry. The British Government’s Department of Science and Industrial Research was running a scheme that supported graduates from industry for PhD studies. The chemistry department of Sheffield University had some of these awards, so off I went across the Pennines to start my research career, and after two years there I was promoted to ARIC, a professional chemist. A year later I was awarded my PhD. I was 24 years old.

Later, when the Chemical Society subsumed the RIC, I could also claim to be a Chartered Chemist, so the 16-year-old school leaver had come a long way, and my education did not cost me anything financially, just a lot of hard work. I also had great fun, stimulus, intellectual satisfaction and lots of patents. I started as a student member of the RIC at 16, I am still a member of the RSC at 83, so I wonder if I qualify for some sort of an award?

Frank Holland
Via email

No more nitrogen

The article concerning atmospheric helium increasing assumes that ‘nitrogen levels in the atmosphere remain constant’. This is clearly not the case since (as I have suggested in a previous letter) the Haber process abstracts millions of tons of nitrogen from the atmosphere every year.

I cannot think how any of this nitrogen can be replaced. So the percentage must be falling.

Gerald Booth CChem FRSC
Oldham, UK

Near-miss potential

Richard Graham deserves a medal for his comment that ‘near-miss reporting promotes proactive behaviour’.

I worked for a company that set personal targets for near-miss reporting – three per month per member of staff. Yes, this gathered safety statistics to guide management but it also got staff into the habit of looking for safety issues. Near-misses are not simply accidents narrowly avoided but include things that simply have the potential to become accidents in the future. If I spot that damaged drain cover then I might have saved myself an accident today; reporting it as a near-miss means I might have saved somebody else from having the same accident tomorrow.

Safety is not just a management responsibility. We all have a stake in ensuring that everyone goes home intact at the end of the day; the last thing I want on my conscience is for you to have the accident I overlooked. The cynics usually say near-miss reporting is ‘just another management initiative’ or ‘a waste of time because management never fixes anything’. Well, it’s up to you – do you really care about the wellbeing of your colleagues, your organisation and the world around it? It takes personal determination and leadership as well as effective management to develop a safety culture. Way to go, Richard! Keep up the good work!

Nick Gudde
Via email

Urban cultivation

The article ‘Is synthetic petroleum the missing link in the route to net zero?’ covers nearly everything, except perhaps the prospect that, in an ideal world, increased demand for feedstock might encourage increased production of biomass without compromising food production. I’m aware of two approaches that have been discussed. The first is a return to long-stemmed grain crops, though this might conflict with vested interests.

The second would be to enhance urban and transport environments by cultivating more luxuriant vegetation in parks and gardens, and in waste spaces such as roadsides. Presently, the amount being grown is diminishing in private and public areas, because pressure to reduce maintenance and disposal costs. One municipality near here has got rid of most of its hedges. I guess the biggest obstacle to change would be the need to develop and market more efficient means, possibly robotic, for harvesting, pre-processing, collecting and transporting bulky material that is inflammable when dry and liable to spontaneous combustion when damp.

Christopher Lee MRSC
St Martin de Bréthencourt, France

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