Process Manufacturing Workforce: Don't Be Thrown for a Loop

When processing chemicals, it has become increasingly important to isolate the process from the work environment. The agitated filter dryer accomplishes this by providing a high degree of containment.

By Ian Nimmo and John Moscatelli, User Centered Design Services LLC

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These and other issues are created by poor DCS implementation, and have caused console operators to reject the DCS’s capabilities, ignore the human-computer interface, and attempt to run the unit using DCS controller faceplates arranged in small groups. They long for the old panel board days when the controllers were laid out in large groups and it was easy to monitor the whole picture. These issues must be considered when deciding on proper staffing levels.

Determine staffing levels
These metrics can be combined into a staffing assessment model and can allow companies to compare staffing levels between various parts of a single complex, the industry average and pace setters. The model can also be used to anticipate staffing changes as units are added or shut down, or as units are altered mechanically or from a control perspective. The model also captures the impact of poor DCS implementation and its effect on operator workload. Many managers have wondered why they have two console operators for a relatively simple unit or group of units. The union and the operators insist that one person cannot do the job, and any attempt to do so would lead to an increase in incidents. The staffing assessment uses factors that affect workload, including equipment complexity, unit interactions and the integrity of the DCS implementation, and allows managers to get head count under control.

Once established, a model that compares operator workload can be used to optimize the mix of an operator’s duties by providing a rational basis for workload redistribution or consolidation. The final step is to review the new responsibilities by completing a risk assessment, which is based on an analysis of the management systems and includes a review of scenarios based on different operating modes. These areas are frequently overlooked when considering staffing changes, but they are critical to success. While assessing the quality of the plant’s management systems can be challenging, requiring internal and external resources, this must be done before staffing changes can be safely attempted . Let’s look at some of the key management systems in a bit more detail.
Selection, training and development of operators. The quality of the operators has an impact on their ability to take on greater workloads. Who hasn’t experienced times when activities have been postponed because the wrong crew was on shift?

To assess the ability to reduce staffing, the facility must take an honest look at the quality of the workforce. A few examples follow:
• How are new-hire operators selected? A rigorous screening process should select the best available, rather than throwing a few American Petroleum Institute (API) tests at the candidates.
• How are the operators initially trained? A formal training process should concentrate on all pertinent aspects of the position. It is not sufficient to have six weeks of new-hire training followed by on-the-job training. Separate, formal training should exist for the console job.
• How are console operators chosen? The move to a dedicated console-operator post should be treated as an upgrade in duties and pay. The selection should not be based solely on seniority, but on testing and competency models to ensure the best person is selected.

Procedures. A good set of operating procedures can be an invaluable tool, but only if the procedures are correct, up-to-date, easily accessible and actually used. Procedures should be available that cover all pertinent situations, such as normal operations, abnormal conditions and emergency situations. Further, they have to be written with the correct level of detail and in the correct format so they are useful to new operators, as well as experienced operators.

Each operator’s roles and responsibilities need to be clarified before implementing the procedure. In the past, workload was often divided differently by each shift based on experience and personal preferences, but was well understood by each individual team. Having console operators in a remote location often removes them from this planning phase.

Management of change (MOC). As a consequence of OSHA 1910, everyone has an MOC policy. But not all policies are created equal, nor are sufficient resources and discipline always devoted to ensure the policy is fully implemented. When done properly, the MOC policy is a powerful tool to communicate critical information to the operators. All MOC policies should cover the following areas:
• There must be a mechanism in place to keep all operators informed of changes in the plant in a timely fashion, especially personnel at remote work stations.
• The MOC system should scrutinize changes to ensure they are well thought out and implemented.
• The system should be fully utilized in the field and periodically audited to ensure compliance.
• The system must be applied to control systems and organizational changes, as well as mechanical changes.

Teamwork, roles and responsibilities. The organization must be structured and implemented to fully support the operator during normal and abnormal situations. It must also be capable of continuing to support the operators when they take on additional responsibilities. It is important that everyone knows his or her role in the organization. Good, reliable communication systems must be in place. Key support personnel must be available when needed. All of these issues must be reviewed before staffing changes can commence.

Willingness to act. This area is vitally important to the success of the console operator. Is there an environment of support and empowerment in place so the operator feels free to act? Does the operator have to clear every move through a foreman to avoid being reprimanded? Management must routinely stress the importance of safety before production. Management must reward operators for taking the initiative to act in an emergency. If the plant culture is one that fosters hiding mistakes due to fear of reprisal, and stresses production at all costs, the console operators will not be able to achieve the level of performance required to reach Best in Class staffing levels.

Alertness and fatigue. A console operator at a modern plant is expected to be awake, alert and ready to take decisive action at a moment’s notice. However, we frequently provide working conditions that actively work against this goal. Are light levels kept low? This is often done to combat glare on the DCS screens, which is caused by poorly designed lighting systems, or to reduce the eye strain caused by black DCS-screen backgrounds. Is the ventilation poor, causing extreme changes in temperature? Are the air vents filthy and is the air quality poor? Do schedules allow, or even require, operators to work excessive overtime and consecutive days so that they can’t get adequate rest? All these issues create, at best, an uncomfortable environment and, at worst, one that causes the operators to be drowsy and inattentive.

Don’t expect a simple answer
At the beginning of this article we arrived at that common plant management question: “What’s the right number of operators for our facility?” The simple answer to that question is that there is no simple answer, no effective short-cuts, and no guidelines that can be safely applied.

Reducing staffing levels should be viewed as a long-term, continual process. You can start by identifying areas that can be improved to facilitate staffing reductions. Then implement changes in those areas as resources become available and follow that up with feasible reductions. Almost all plants can achieve a reduction in staffing levels, but attempting to make a significant reduction in personnel without addressing other areas of concern might be difficult and possibly create a dangerous situation.

Ian Nimmo is president and founder of User Centered Design Services, Anthem, Ariz., a firm that specializes in abnormal-situation management, alarm management and other control issues. E-mail him at John Moscatelli is the managing partner of User Centered Design Services. E-mail him at

1. Contra Costa County Ordinance No. 98-48 and amendments from 2000-20 Industrial Safety Ordinance (1998).
2. Brabazon, P. and H. Conlin, “Assessing the safety of staffing arrangements for process operations in the chemical and allied industries,” contract research report for the Health and Safety Executive (2001).
3. Parker, S.K. and H.M. Williams, “Effective teamworking: Reducing the psychosocial risks,” HSE Books, Norwich, England (2001).

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