Operators Get More Help

Efforts aim to provide insights and tools to boost performance.

By Seán Ottewell, editor at large

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Operators probably won’t be surprised that the results of a CP survey reported in the September 2008 issue identified lack of ongoing training, number of alarms, and control system graphical interface as the three factors most likely to impede their performance (http://survey.atomz.com/st100029dd/?st_s=49&st_tpl=6&st_d=display). What might surprise operators, however, is the amount of work being done to tackle these issues.

“These are very relevant topics and undoubtedly of interest to Dow, along with the rest of industry,” says Jerry Gipson, director of the Engineering Solutions Technology Center of the Dow Chemical Co., Midland, Mich.
“What we want to accomplish is safe, secure production and operation, and our operators are a critical part of achieving this. But the role of the operator and the issues they face continue to evolve rapidly,” he adds.
For training, this means making sure that operators’ knowledge is captured in the company’s technology, process design, work processes and management systems.

“The challenges here are to decide what knowledge needs to be established and maintained, and how to define and promote best practices. It’s also critical to tackle the issue of succession from one operator to another,” notes Gipson.

A key tool that Dow relies upon is standardization. “We have a long-term focus on this because it supports efficiency and best practice globally. So we are able to leverage commonality and then add it to specific training,” he explains.

Plant-to-plant standardization also is important in tackling the alarms issue. Here, Dow first focuses on the design of the process automation system and logic. For example, the application of unit-based control principles has significantly cut the number of nuisance alarms. So, if an alarm goes off, it’s usually justified and an operator will know how to deal with it.

“It all comes back to making sure that alarms are designed and working in a sensible way; so we look very hard at plant-to-plant standardization to help with this,” adds Gipson.

It’s a similar story with the control-system user interface, something that the company has been working on for many years. “When you walk into a Dow control room there will always be always be significant plant-to-plant similarity in the information seen, how it is displayed, even down to the colors, shapes, and text used. So there is a consistency in what the operator sees. Again, we are using best practice in our design principles here, too,” he notes.

Dow also is involved in broader initiatives to tackle these three major issues through ISA, Research Triangle Park, N.C. The company actively participates on that professional group’s standards committees, where it tries to drive an industrial consensus around best practices focused on sustainability. It also has a long-standing relationship with the ARC Advisory Group, Dedham, Mass., a firm that surveys best practices. “We regard such community interactions as essential. But at the same time, however, different communities and stakeholder groups have different objectives, so agreeing on what we have in common can be a challenge. I personally spend a considerable amount of time working in this external arena. There are definitely some great examples of things that the chemical and process industries do agree on, first and foremost the need for safe, secure and sustainable operations,” says Gipson.

New initiatives
The understanding that operators face some common problems is spurring more cooperative efforts. For instance, the Center for Operator Performance (COP), Dayton, Ohio, which was formally chartered in May 2007, aims to conduct research into generic issues in human factors and process operator performance (www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2008/213.html). Its members include operating companies Chevron, Flint Hills Resources, Marathon Petroleum, NOVA Chemicals and Suncor Energy, vendors ABB, Emerson Process Management and PAS, as well as Wright State University and human-factors consultant Beville Engineering. Alarms and training are two of its main research thrusts.

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