Essential Plants Need Effective Engineers

April 21, 2020
Operating during a pandemic demands a different attitude and approach

Many engineers now are working from home because of the Covid-19 pandemic. That often requires some adapting (e.g., see: “Back Up Your Remote Work”). I already had stored files on an external drive for working from home.

My plant is in Toledo, Ohio — a state that was one of the first to mandate “shelter in place.” A week later we were back in operation, though, as the plant was declared essential because of the intermediates it makes. However, things were very different. I could go to the plant but mainly worked at home. Here’s how I stayed productive.

I already had anticipated our annual outage would be delayed or even canceled and that our capital budget was toast. So, I started working on plant infrastructure: drawings, equipment files, and, of course, PICs, as I call them. (PIC stands for “project in the can (file).”) These include safety relief calculations, safety investigations resulting from hazard and operability studies, sundry projects like improving the reliability of one of the facility’s compressed air systems, and troubleshooting small annoyances that I never had time to tackle in the past.


Part of my responsibilities on the site are the piping and instrumentation diagrams (P&IDs). (For tips about doing these better, check out “Improve Your Critical Drawings.”) So, I took dozens of photographs when I visited the plant, created the isometrics and even missing tank drawings. Then, I completed the P&IDs from home.

As for the sundry projects, I did everything from calculations to the design report, the management-of-change document, and the investment application for each project in turn. It’s amazing what you can accomplish with a short trip to the plant.

Of course, all capital projects didn’t go away. While construction this year wasn’t going to happen, doing the detailed engineering for construction later certainly made sense. So, I spent a lot of time on Skype explaining scope details. (In the back of my mind, I worried about job security because there’s not much point in keeping a project engineer around any length of time if projects are delayed.)

Did my focus suffer? Sure, a little — more in the beginning than after a few weeks. I was depressed like everyone else. First thing in the morning, I’d play, “It’s the end of the world as we know it” by R.E.M. until it was no longer funny and, in fact, boring. I spent a lot of time on social media. However, I adjusted. I created a new ritual. I allowed myself to sleep-in a little if I was tired; sleep is a tool for coping with stress. Sometimes, I started at 5 am, sometimes as late as 10 am. If the weather was nice, I’d take out my frustrations with a rake or broom or something, working in the yard or garage for a half hour. Most importantly, I kept dressing like I was going to the office — slippers, a robe and an unshaven face don’t set the right mood. It reinforced that home now was my workplace, not where I play “Call of Duty.”

When I do go to the plant, I notice that everyone is depressed and withdrawn. Not surprisingly, housekeeping and repairs are suffering. I took it upon myself to “produce” a walkthrough of the various units in the facility complete with marked-up plot plans, pictures and even movies of the equipment in operation. I distributed these to all the managers. Hopefully, they will see the housekeeping and maintenance issues that I saw.

What I am mostly concerned about in this pandemic is a loss of focus that could lead to someone getting killed. We in the chemical industry operate equipment that could turn on an inattentive person. I learned in the military that you must keep your people focused on the little things so they’re not overcome by fear or boredom. That’s why housekeeping is so important: it’s a problem that requires ongoing attention.

Another concern I have is the impact of reliability on safety. During economic downturns, companies try to run equipment for as long as possible, too often I reckon without any idea of what the limit is. This especially holds true in older facilities that put off urgent repairs for reasons such as bankruptcy, a change in management or pure neglect. One lesson that this pandemic should teach us is that better upkeep is crucial for coping with an unexpected shock.

About the Author

Dirk Willard | Contributing Editor

DIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing Contributing Editor.

Sponsored Recommendations

Heat Recovery: Turning Air Compressors into an Energy Source

More than just providing plant air, they're also a useful source of heat, energy savings, and sustainable operations.

Controls for Industrial Compressed Air Systems

Master controllers leverage the advantages of each type of compressor control and take air system operations and efficiency to new heights.

Discover Your Savings Potential with the Kaeser Toolbox

Discover your compressed air station savings potential today with our toolbox full of calculators that will help you determine how you can optimize your system!

The Art of Dryer Sizing

Read how to size compressed air dryers with these tips and simple calculations and correction factors from air system specialists.