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NMSU Chemical Engineering department head honored with safety award

David A. Rockstraw, New Mexico State University Chemical Engineering Department Head and Robert Davis Distinguished Achievement Professor, has been honored as a "Friend of Safety." He was recognized by Environmental, Health & Safety for his efforts to enhance the culture of environmental health and safety at the university.

Man on the left talks with a male student on the right.
NMSU Chemical Engineering Department Head and Robert Davis Distinguished Achievement Professor David A. Rockstraw (left) has been honored as a "Friend of Safety" by Environmental, Health & Safety. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

"What impressed me the most last year was when Dr. Rockstraw drove an explosive compound from his department over to our lab and then personally led the deactivation of the explosive," said Drew Kaczmarek, EH&S assistant director. "Dr. Rockstraw took ownership of a high hazard material and safely stabilized the material to a state where it could be sent off as a regular hazardous waste - also literally saving thousands of dollars that would have been needed to bring in an explosive expert."

In a surprise announcement at the engineering roundup, Jan. 13, Rockstraw was presented with an engraved globe, representing the impact safety leaders make in the world.

"I was surprised at the safety award because I didn't know that EH&S offered such an award," Rockstraw said. "This was a team award earned by every member of the Chemical Engineering Department who thinks often about safety; I was just the one doing a lot of the talking."

Under Rockstraw's leadership the culture of laboratory safety has made positive strides. He established requirements for minimum personal protective equipment and enforces the policy. The Chemical Engineering Department has gone nearly two years without lost research work or laboratory-related injury.

For graduate research in the Chemical Engineering Department, Rockstraw requires all work processes be written and approved by experts on the various hazards before work can begin. He created a required monthly safety seminar for chemical engineering faculty, staff and students, fire extinguisher training and case studies of chemical lab and chemical plant accidents.

In addition, Rockstraw directed a workshop to train Chemical Engineering personnel to self-audit the entirety of the department's facilities, compiled more than 100 findings from the audits, then ensured each of the findings was corrected.

In the department, Rockstraw established the Sentinel for Safety awards program and an occupational safety webpage (http://chemeng.nmsu.edu/che_safety.htm) where Chemical Engineering personnel can find needed safety-related resources. Rockstraw also was honored with the Donald C. Roush Excellence in Teaching Award at the 2014 spring convocation ceremony.

Created in 2008, the "Friend of Safety" award was inspired by two professors, chemistry professor Michael Johnson and Regents Professor in plant and environmental sciences Mary O'Connell, whom have strived to improve safety in the science areas.