In response to the global pandemic, it’s vital for chemical manufacturers to maintain production for the good of the economy and society at large while keeping their employees safe from infection. Increased workload caused by greater demands or reduced staffing (or both) means that people have less time to communicate. Employees may be carrying out extraordinary tasks or covering assignments for incapacitated colleagues, making communication that much more important. However, because COVID-19 has brought the need for social distancing to the plant, face-to-face communications have become impossible or difficult at best.
Handling this emergency demands a balanced approach that takes into account hazardous operations, environmental impacts, health and safety aspects, product quality, and long-term consequences on business continuity and profitability.
Despite the pressure to keep production going, a chemical maker must assess how plant operations must change to address the crisis. The company always has the option to shut down the plant if the costs of operating don’t meet the benefits (to worker safety, for example). Prudently maintaining operations requires defining how operating procedures must change and, for instance, balancing the risks of COVID-19 exposure with the process safety of the overall operation.
Shift Communications’ Key Role
Running a 24×7 chemical operation requires the close collaboration of people with different skills and responsibilities, all focused on a single outcome. At the end of each shift, a different set of hands takes over. Continuity is key to ensuring safety and efficiency; this relies on seamless communication between shift teams. Because the handover between shifts is one of the most critical activities undertaken at chemical processing sites, most plants mandate that shift handovers always should involve face-to-face interactions between individuals working in the same role. This gives incoming personnel about to start their shift the best opportunity to understand what is happening and, hence, what they must do to keep the plant running safely and efficiently. However, COVID-19 is disrupting this established and time-tested procedure — reducing or even eliminating the opportunity to meet face-to-face.
Staffing shortages can mean that some roles go unfilled on every shift. So, handing over to a particular individual may not be possible. Moreover, in a crisis, there probably are more unplanned activities to monitor, adding to the quantity and complexity of the information that must be communicated. What’s more, shift workers are likely to be fatigued and stressed, raising the potential that critical issues get ignored and fall through the cracks. So, the usual handover practice no longer suffices. Instead of just doing a rushed summary immediately before the handover takes place, staff must log observations, tasks and conditions during and throughout every shift. This provides the incoming shift with an accurate and structured protocol describing the true condition of the operation for which they now are taking responsibility.
Good practice requires a plant to:
1. Maintain an up-to-date and accurate chronological log.
2. Allocate time at the end of each shift to allow the outgoing supervisor to prepare for the handover. This is to ensure the documentation from the outgoing shift completely and accurately describes the current condition of the plant.
3. Avoid shift-to-shift contamination between the incoming and outgoing teams by conducting a remote handover via video conference.
Achieving A Great Shift Handover
Conducting good shift handovers when face-to-face contact isn’t possible may pose some difficult challenges. Electronic logs and handover reports can assist greatly because people can talk through the information on the phone or via webcam. This can go a long way to overcoming the shortfalls of non-verbal communication. Sharing computer screen displays, particularly those from control systems, and using photos and other images are other useful ways to allow interaction and prompt discussion.
Don’t expect people to be naturally good at a shift handover, especially one performed remotely. They must be skilled at communication and share common goals. To support this communication, base each element of the shift protocol on a well-structured information design. This structure contains: the status of safety-critical systems and production performance as well as executed activities, ongoing work and priorities, among other things. Good procedures emphasizing how to communicate effectively backed with appropriate training can be essential. Platforms supporting shift handovers and other structured communication technologies can make a big difference in supporting shift-to-shift collaboration.
Bringing In The Broader Team
Shift team members aren’t the only staff on the front line. Operations management, engineering, quality and the like play essential roles in keeping production on track as well as ensuring safe operation. It’s vital, even in normal times, that these disparate departments work as one team. To do this, they must collaborate using a common knowledge platform. Increasingly though, due to the pandemic, people performing some or all of these roles are working remotely from home, making this knowledge sharing all the more difficult. (In a recent CP online poll on the impact of COVID-19, more than 40% of respondents indicated that they were only working remotely).
To illustrate the problem, first think of a plant operation as an orchestration of processes and tasks, some operating over several days or even weeks, each involving multiple roles and responsibilities. An engineer may need to inform the responsible control room operator or shift supervisor of a temperature change required for a reactor prior to a grade change, for example. Unfortunately, this may not involve simply communicating with a specific individual but instead with whichever person is performing that role at the moment, thus making email communication impossible. (Or, perhaps, the individual operator who received an email has called in sick and a colleague is filling in.) Engineering may need to communicate a condition to a role, such as a board operator, or even to an entire production team.
Now, consider the situation when the engineer responsible for a production process is working remotely. Here, the front-line “essential” workers on shift in the plant become the engineer’s eyes and ears. They must send this information at the right time and in the right context for the engineer to make correct and timely decisions. This transparency is essential for maintaining production performance, quality and safety.
During normal times, managers and technical staff can meet with front-line workers and each other whenever they like via formal meetings or informal sessions. Popping into the control room or process areas is a useful way for managers not only to talk to front-line workers but also to see for themselves what really is happening. They can access the data they need easily; if they can’t find what they want, they can go and look for it.
The current crisis now is forcing teams to make decisions on the fly with greater urgency. Thus, immediate and transparent access to information and data becomes essential. Having a single source of truth for all parties reduces risk and promotes the efficacy of these decisions. In addition, fewer people generally are available on site to take action due to more staff working remotely. Having seamless access to a production knowledge base helps all involved to cover more areas.
The new normal is here to stay, and manufacturers across the board are taking action to minimize the impact on their operations. A recent survey by the National Association of Manufacturers, “Economic and Operational Impacts of COVID-19 to Manufacturers,” indicated that about 80% of manufacturers foresee a financial impact. An analysis by PwC, “COVID-19: What it means for industrial manufacturing,” noted that more than 50% expect the pandemic to affect their operations.
To respond, leading manufacturers are dramatically changing how they work within their production plants. To manage this change, they have learned that effective communications provides a vital layer of protection in their operations. This is especially important in chemical making, which often involves operations that can be hazardous to employees and the environment.
Ultimately, what we’ve learned through this COVID-19 pandemic is that life is unpredictable. Just as most of us as individuals were ill-prepared for this crisis, chemical manufacturers were equally challenged to quickly and efficiently adapt their processes and streamline their decision-making and communications while protecting their workforce and keeping plants running smoothly.
ANDREAS ESCHBACH is chief executive officer of eschbach, Boston, Mass. Email him at [email protected].