Episode 31 Distilled Calculating Operator Needs 6503671cd4b28

Podcast: Expert Insights on Calculating Operator Needs in The Chemical Industry

Sept. 19, 2023
This episode discusses an innovative approach to calculating operator needs and the impact of automation on staffing in the process industry.

Welcome to the Operator training edition of Chemical Processing's Distilled Podcast. This podcast in its transcript can be [email protected]. I'm Traci Purdum, editor-in-chief of Chemical Processing, and joining me is Dave Strobhar, founder and principal human factors engineer for Beville Engineering. Dave is also the founder of the Center for Operator Performance.


Traci: Today we are going to discuss how to calculate operators. And I understand you have a better system than the typical approach of trying to define what an operator does. So, let's get to it. What is the best way to calculate operators?

Dave: Well, it's somewhat almost the reverse of what is being done. Most people try to define what are the number of tasks that the operators do and how long do they perform each task. And you multiply it and total it up, and you say, ah, that's how many people I need. But numerous times I've seen when that's done, they actually end up with more hours of work being performed than there are in a 12- or eight-hour shift. And so, part of that is people are very bad at estimating time. That's true. Not just in how long it takes to perform a task, but we really are not good at time estimates for it. So what we would suggest is understanding that an operator is there to perform a task; they're there to do something. That's why you have this human present. And the best way to start understanding how many operators do I need is by looking at, well, what if something doesn't get done?

So rather than looking at it, these are all the things they do. Look at it from the standpoint of, well, what happens if they aren't there? I don't have enough operators. Something doesn't get done. And if it doesn't get done, what's the consequence associated with that? So, you start looking at it as if I remove certain items, certain tasks from their requirement, what's the consequence associated with that? And as you go through and you start looking at removing the various tasks, some may have long-term effects. If they don't pull certain samples, I might have some long-term corrosion issues. Some might be purely economic. If I don't perform this particular task, we could be off-spec and have some economic damage. And then, of course, the most critical is that if you have some sort of abnormal situation and you're responding to an upset or an emergency, well, if they don't perform that task, then a number of very bad things can happen.

I could injure somebody and hurt them, or I could have some sort of release to the environment and impact the surrounding community, or I could destroy millions of dollars of a corporate asset because we contaminated a catalyst in a particular vessel. So, you want to look at it from the standpoint of not what they do but what would happen if they weren't there to do it. And that then allows you to assess what is the impact of having this person there or having additional operators there or not. And you can then say, oh, okay, well, this is a minor economic issue. We're going to have to, if we don't have this operator available for this particular task, then it comes time to do it. I'm going to have to call in overtime, so I'm going to have higher overtime, higher personnel costs. But that's a management choice as opposed to, well, if this person isn't there, somebody's going to get hurt. Well, that's you. Well then, we need to have that person there. And so, looking at it from the standpoint of not what they do, but what happens if they don't do it,

Traci: An interesting approach and bubbling up all the critical stuff to the top, and some of those tasks may not be critical, and you can accordingly adjust for the operators that way as well. Interesting. My question is now based upon automation and technology solutions, do they influence operator needs?

Dave: Oh, absolutely. So, as I said, operators exist to perform a task. Oftentimes that task is now being done by some sort of automatic system because I've been around in the industry so long that over my 45 years in the business, this is one of the areas that I have seen a major shift. When I first started, operators were involved in performing some very critical tasks that were there to ensure the safety of the workers, keep the material in the pipe and protect the expensive equipment and so on. And if they didn't do their task, you were going to have something really bad happen. In the last couple of decades, the advent of safety instrumented systems has come into play. And so, I have these triple redundant, high-reliability systems that are performing tasks that the operator used to be the only one to perform it.

So, if I had to block in a valve to cut off the fuel gas to a fired heater in the past a couple of decades ago, the control operator could close a control valve, but that's not a positive seal. And then the field operator would block it in. Well, now the safety instrumented system's going to sense that, and it's going to activate what's called double block and bleed. So, they're going to block the fuel gas on each side of a valve and vent off any pressure that's in there. So, the operator can still block the fuel gas, and they usually do, but that cask that they used to perform is now being performed by this automatic system. And so, the question is that we had before would be when we're talking about, well, what if the operator weren't there? Well, when I started my career and before you had the safety instrumented systems, well, if you didn't have the operator to block in the fuel gas, you could potentially have an explosion inside the heater firebox.

Well, now that I have these safety instrumented systems in place, they're going to perform that task. And so, the operator is now, well, what if the operator isn't there? It's like, well, I won't have a backup to this safety instrumented system. But the safety instrumented systems are designed with such high reliability, the fact that it may take them longer to block in that fuel gas does not have the weight that it once did. So just like we deal with in everyday life, there used to be somebody checking out, scanning your groceries for you while you do that. Now because they've automated that particular activity, automation is there to perform certain tasks. And so, as automation has increased, the tasks that the operator is the primary component or the primary way to get that task done has decreased. And with that becomes different staffing requirements simply to say that, well, I needed these people here so that when something happened, they could perform these different activities. Well, now the safety instrument and system are going to perform those particular activities as the primary means of getting that task done.

Traci: You're talking a lot about the safety instrumented systems, and that kind of makes me wonder, are there any regulations or guidelines that would require to have that backup? You say that the backup really is not necessary in some cases, but are there regulations that require it?

Dave: Surprisingly, not that many. Most of the regulations regarding staffing come into play around boilers. So there are various codes typically by state in the states, and I think it's by province in Canada, that if you are generating steam from a boiler of a certain capacity, that there are requirements in terms of having operators present and available to respond to that. So boiler operations, steam-driven turbines in Canada, do have some regulatory requirements that mandate a minimum number of individuals to be present to respond. But as far as some larger and potentially more hazardous process equipment, there really isn't. So, it comes down to making a judgment. And that's actually where a lot of the emotion that comes into play with staffing requirements. Operators, obviously they want to work in a safe environment. Management wants to also for them to be safe, but management has the added burden that a post position, something that you cover 24 7 will typically cost $300,000 to $600,000 per year.

So, every additional post is half a million dollars, and they have to weigh that as part of their overall business objectives. Well, how do you balance the two? And so, up until now, a lot of it has been this sort of subjective assessment. That's why it becomes so emotional. They lack objectivity. There are ways now we use them in terms of quantifying what the impact of these individuals is. And it's basically what we've talked about so far. You identify the tasks, what do they have to do, and then what's the consequence? What if they don't do that? And that way, both hourly and salary people can go through and reasonably agree in terms of, okay, yes, these are the tasks; this is what I have to do. And then, do we have enough individuals to carry out the functions that the operator must perform?

Traci: What about special conditions? You're talking about you have to make a judgment call and sometimes it can be an emotional one, but there are special conditions or variations that pop up. How does that impact operator requirements?

Dave: It's often critical. And those special conditions often are your limiting factor. They're going to be the determinants of your workload. So, for field operators in a large continuous process unit, you need to have enough operators 24/7 to be able to safely bring the process to a stable condition in response to a particular upset. So that's going to determine that's your minimum staffing level. Now when things are, you're not in the upset, and you're just running, maintain, and you're doing maintenance and laboratory and activities, there may not be enough work to keep those, that contingent of operators busy. Can you reduce the number of operators because they're not doing much during routine operations? No. They're there for that special, hopefully, rare condition when the unit crashes. And so these sort of special time periods that often don't occur, but every several years or hopefully don't occur at all, they're going to become your limiting factor to it.

And so now you've got a situation where I have to balance the manpower needs with, well, what are the work needs associated with that? And that's where you will get into some of these issues around automation. In other words, I don't have enough workday in and day out to keep this number of operators engaged, but I need them for that special condition, for that upset. Well, now, can I install automation to remove or unload some of those off-normal tasks to bring the demands of the upset in line with the amount of work that needs to be done on a day-in and day-out basis. So yes, very critical. Those periods of time and often that will be your driving force and say, well, yes. And I was at a plant and they said, well, yeah, we just have to accept that we need this number of people for managing an upset.

And yeah, we don't really have enough work for 'em day in and day out, but that's just something we're going to have to live with. And that's where a lot of this, what we try to do is help make informed decisions. So, somebody can say, well, why do you have the number of operators that you have and be able to show in some objective means that, okay, this is why you have this number, and it's there because of these special conditions. Or it may be there because we just have so much work on a day-in and day-out basis that we have more operators than we need for these upsets. And that's a great, great situation to be in where yes, the staffing level is set purely by the steady state run and maintain requirements.

Traci: What about cross-training when you have these upsets? Would cross-training benefit for operators to be able to perform multiple tasks? And does that impact the calculation so you can pull somebody off of something else in order to fulfill the requirements?

Dave: Well, absolutely. In other reason, the more people that I have that know a particular position during these upset scenarios, the better it's going to be. And there's often in talking with operators if they have an operator who's fairly new or the best they can do is tell them, here, you see that valve close, that valve. And so, they can give the instruction, but the individual, because they lack the cross-training, can't function independently associated with it. So cross-training makes it go much better. Does it impact the calculation? No, because you can't count on that cross-trained individual or the other individual A to B cross-trained or even to B there. Early on, when we would do these exercises as to, well, what's happening during this power failure or what's happening when you've lost this major piece of equipment, there would be these sort of magical ghost operators that would be described as performing tasks.

They would say, oh, well, somebody will block in this line or somebody will take care of that. And so, I would always say, no, I want an exact, who is it that is going to do that? Not you're hoping that somebody's going to go over there and make it happen, but you need to ensure that it's defined as part of this individual's job requirements that you indeed are going to do that and not have it just be, well, I hope somebody or usually someone will get to it. No, it needs to be defined that this individual is going to make that happen because that's what's going to go into your calculation. And so while having the cross-training is fantastic, when you do the calculation, you really have to premise it sort of on the worst case. And that being that the person that happens to be working that other job today, and I'm going to have to do it by myself.

So that becomes, again, that bottleneck or limitation in staffing to say, this is what I have to do and can I carry that out? And if you can't carry it out because you require that other individual, and we see that quite common where I may have a task that needs to be performed and the controls for that task are physically separated, the valve and the display associated with head valve are 10 feet apart. It's a two-person task. And so when you run into those two-person tasks until the time you get into where, well, can I change the design? Can I do some automation? That's going to be that limiting factor, but you need to treat it as though this individual has to do these things. And if that can't be done, then you start looking at can I use that automation opportunity to relieve or offload some of those tasks?

Traci: Dave, is there anything you want to add that we didn't touch on?

Dave: So I think in terms of the workload and staffing, it's obviously a very emotional issue when people get into it. I think, like a lot of things, the solution is to try to make it objective, quantify it, get it out of the emotional demands of what I've seen or what I've been through, and instead get it down to the objective of I have people there, I need them to do certain things. Well, what if they can't do those things? And some are, it's like, hey, we have to be able to have somebody to do that injury, environmental asset impacts, but some things are we're going to waste money or we're not going to restart the unit as fast. Those sort of things. That's a management calculation of risk reward. Okay? It takes you two days to get the unit back up and maybe if you had another person, you would be back up in one day.

Well, that's just an economic decision that management makes all the time, but you understand why those decisions are being made, and you can separate out, hey, we need to make sure it's safe, it has to be safe and from, Hey, we want to be making money and there are certain things that are going to allow us to do that. And then that falls to a question of, well, okay, are we willing to accept the risk for taking these particular actions, the risk, never getting into that issue of safety environment or assets, just the risk of we're not going to make as much money this year as we otherwise would.

Traci: Well, you're 45 years in the industry. Definitely lends to your thought leadership and helping our listeners balance the manpower needs properly with informed decisions.

About the Author

Traci Purdum | Editor-in-Chief

Traci Purdum, an award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering manufacturing and management issues, is a graduate of the Kent State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Kent, Ohio, and an alumnus of the Wharton Seminar for Business Journalists, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

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