Operator Training Gains Ground

Initiatives build on established methods as well as emerging technology.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Making operators more efficient and effective remains high on the chemical industry's agenda. Testifying to that, the Center for Operator Performance (COP), an industry/academic collaboration based in Dayton, Ohio, shortly will announce two new member companies, one in refining and one in chemicals.

David Strobhar, principal human factors engineer for Beville Engineering and a driving force behind COP, cites the insights provided by the organization's work as a key reason why interest in its activities continues to grow. For instance, a project to improve operator decision-making that adapted a set of military training exercises to process control in pipelines and refineries gave valuable results.

"Initially I thought this was too easy because it is scenario-based. It sounded like traditional 'what if?' drills. For example, 'What if I get water in my feed?' But the simple power of this approach is that the exercises are symptom-based rather than scenario-based. That simple twist gives a lot of power to the technique because you get inside an operator's thought processes. So we can stop at various points and ask operators, 'What is happening?' or 'What are you thinking?' It's very good for novices who learn how experienced operators go about approaching problems," he says.

Strobhar acted as a guinea pig on one pipeline problem and admits that he unintentionally built a trap for himself: "As a novice, I was only looking at the problem from a superficial level, not understanding that my actions had taken away options should something go wrong. Of course, in the exercise something went wrong. I then realized I needed to look not only at the problem presented but how the operation had changed and at future problems that could potentially occur."

After the project, COP-members Marathon Pipe Line and Flint Hills Resources implemented such decision-making exercises (DMX) on their sites.

Flint Hills now is extending the procedure from control room operators to engineers -- so they can understand how control room people think. The company also is using it to restore key steps that had become lost or forgotten over time.

"Another benefit of this approach is being felt by some smaller companies. New regulations from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) require pipeline operators to go on simulation training courses. But simulators are expensive and the smaller companies are hoping that by using a smaller simulation and adding in this technique, they will meet the requirements of the new regulations," Strobhar explains.

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In fact, one of COP's big selling points is that many of its projects help maximize operator performance on simulators. "We are seeing quite a lot of pushback from simulators because they are very expensive and need to be used properly to get the very best results. But one big issue is how to correlate hours in a simulator with improved performance -- in the way that the military do. For example, if a big improvement in performance comes after six hours in a simulator, what is the benefit in doing 7–10 hours? So the question is how to maximize performance using the tool."

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