Brain Drain Brings Big Headaches

Feb. 15, 2009
Inexperience and a tough production schedule can be a lethal combination

I was shocked when I heard the news. A plant producing a wide range of batch chemicals, including an herbicide and ink pigments, exploded, injuring 10 people. But what was most shocking to me personally was that I was scheduled to interview at the plant. An intense curiosity compelled me over the years to ask others what they knew of the accident. News reports from several Michigan papers barely touched the surface of the cause. Informally, I was told that the plant, which had been state-of-the art when it was built, suffered a brain drain. Managers, who were unfamiliar with the process, pushed for more production. Inexperienced operators obliged, taking shortcuts.

This is a recurring nightmare in our industry. Indeed, Trevor Kletz dedicates a whole chapter to organizational change in his book “Still Going Wrong.” In Chapter 4 he describes an accident eerily similar to one that caused an explosion at BP’s Texas City, Texas, refinery in March 2005. A demethanizer column was overfilled by exhausted operators managed by inexperienced supervisors stretched too thin. (For more on the Texas City explosion, see, and Inexperience has been the root cause of many tragedies. So, how can you prevent them?

First, you must realize that workers and management share this danger. Operators need to know their jobs on the plant floor. Engineers and managers must understand the limits of their equipment and process. In the Michigan accident, operators bypassed relief valves with at least the tacit acceptance of their managers. Periodic safety inspections might have caught these problems but we’ve all seen how hazard and operability studies can be short-circuited and abused. There’s no substitute for process knowledge.

For operators, the best solution is a mentoring program. When my grandfather was a tool-and-die maker at General Motors a craftsman about to retire took on several apprentices. Many companies follow this practice; it’s a good approach but requires some oversight because, e.g., operators don’t always have the proper respect for safety. An operating manual including such details as alarm/trip schedules, summaries of past accidents, and the proper assembling and disassembling of equipment may help. A better system is to require operators to pass tests — new operators when they start and experienced operators periodically as a refresher. Augmenting this with simulators could hone some operator skills, provided that the simulations match plant conditions.
Indoctrination of engineers and managers requires a different sort of training. An engineer must understand how operators work and also how equipment functions. Today, most chemical engineering graduates lack practical knowledge about hardware. Their education focuses on theory because it explains a wide range of processes, frequently at the cost of a poor understanding of machinery. Some companies develop engineering manuals to fill the gap; Japanese firms often provide such manuals to their new engineers. Others assign engineers to the field for the first year.

More than a few companies have pinned their hopes on contractors and consultants. Sometimes bringing in technical expertise from outside can help; however, it doesn’t place experience at the factory floor where it’s needed. Consultants, especially if they are company retirees, may be a better choice than contractors. Contractors often get business because they’re the lowest-cost bidder for fixed-fee work — so they can’t necessarily afford to act in a company’s long-term interests.

Consider a scrubber I designed as a contractor. I put in a large pump to reduce the depth of packing because a shorter column provided cost savings in the bid. The cost of the large pump paled in comparison to its higher operating cost; I estimated an additional $300/year in electricity. However, operating cost didn’t concern me. A sharp client would have specified 7-gal/min/ft2 irrigation for optimal energy cost. Instead, I designed for 12 gal/min/ft2. Such is the risk of low-bid fixed fee contracts. (For more on contracts, see

A better approach would be an open-ended contract with a consultant. A simple cost/benefit evaluation a few months into the contract will tell you if your consultant is productive.

There’s another concern when you trust others with your intellectual property: industrial espionage. When I taught a training seminar for clients overseas who bought our process plants I was aware that some of my students weren’t there for tips on starting up a burner. Inevitably, someone would ask me for sizing equations for the particulars of our process. I easily deflected such questions but they made me aware of competition. I’ve heard rumors of Indian and Chinese engineers copying sensitive information on American oil refineries and transmitting it home. None of this surprises me given the access to company information afforded to contractors.

The only workable solution to protecting your intellectual property is to carefully document.

Dirk Willard is a contributing editor to Chemical Processing. You can e-mail him at [email protected].

About the Author

Dirk Willard | Contributing Editor

DIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing Contributing Editor.

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