Downstream Chemical Engineer Co-op Experience at BP

Last spring semester, I worked at BP Whiting Refinery as a Process Safety Engineer Co-op, and it has been such an extraordinary experience. My past 16 weeks were devoted to working on three big projects with three different asset teams: Process Safety, Process Management, and Automation. Though my friends who have done a co-op rotation with BP had warned me how challenging the co-op would be, I refused to believe it as at the end of the day, everyone will thrive on challenges.


My first day at the refinery was full of struggles as I flew in late from Vietnam and only slept for two hours before work. There were four chemical engineering co-op students at BP this semester- one was a returning co-op, and the other two were first-time co-ops but had taken most of the core classes. I, on the other hand, was jet-lagged, homesick and not mentally ready. The refinery, in general, was foreign to me. My mind was pulled into different directions because I did not have time to adjust to my new setup. The sudden change from being at home with my family to living alone in a big city- Chicago- knowing nobody was brutal. It was hard to focus and take all the information in during the refinery overview session, and all I knew was that I felt very lonely and isolated. By the second week, we co-ops were driving home after a long day crying over fears of not getting a return offer because the work was so intense. All of a sudden, four strangers had become each other’s best friend and support system, and since then, I felt less lonely and ready to give it my all.

I was assigned to three projects:

  1. Updating a process safety policy;
  2. Identifying and resolving discrepancies between Highly Managed Alarm lists and Excursion Management Tool; and
  3. Identifying gaps between Safe Design/Operating Limits and Process Hazard Analysis outcomes.


Image: BP Whiting Refinery

I had to conduct an audit on every unit throughout the refinery, and to be able to do this, I had to have a good understanding of the general process and potential hazards on each of the operating units. Even though I took Material and Energy Balance and Transport 1 at school, I had zero knowledge about refining technologies. Therefore, I constantly looked out for online materials to read and consulted with the Process Engineers of different units to learn more in-depth about the process.

My first few weeks involved lots of reading and sitting in different meetings. Eventually, I was able to read the P&IDs (Piping and Instrumentation Diagrams), LCDs (Large Control Diagrams) and also discovered a very resourceful website- CSB (U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board). I have joined BP AN (BP Asian Network) and BP WIN (BP Women Intelligence Network).

Images: BP WIN celebrated International Women’s Day at BP Whiting Refinery

For my project to update the practice for entering operating units, I worked with different people and led several meetings to ensure that the policy aligns with other local guidance and policies, get unanimous agreement on the changes I proposed. Despite the idea itself being very intimidating, proposing the practice updates in front of the Refinery Process Safety Committee was a great opportunity for me to prove my abilities to the refinery leadership team. From this project, I have learned to deliver presentations effectively and engage a variety of audiences. Additionally, I used to be not a fan of writing, but now, my technical writing skill has improved significantly.

Before my co-op started, I imagined I would be responsible for a processing unit at the refinery and be an expert on it, so knowing that I would be in Process Safety made me a bit disappointed. However, my supervisor advised, it is more important to have breadth than depth when first starting my career. Walking into BP training room on the first day, my mind was blown away and I was scared that I was not good enough. But now, sitting at my home office wrapping up my projects, I realized how incredibly I have grown over the last 16 weeks. This co-op has been one of the most challenging experiences so far, and it is the most pivotal point in my early career journey.

Walking out of the refinery knowing that I have my buddies and mentors always there for me, as well as all the skills I have gained, I am confident and ready to raise the bar.

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