podcast episode 33: reducing emergency procedures

Operator Training: Unlock Efficiency, Enhance Safety By Reducing Emergency Procedures

Nov. 10, 2023
In this episode, Traci and Dave discuss the importance of reducing emergency procedures in chemical processing for better operator training and performance.

In this episode, Traci and Dave discuss the importance of reducing emergency procedures in chemical processing for better operator training and performance. They explore the benefits of streamlining procedures, emphasizing that about 90% of emergency steps are common across various situations. Dave advocates for simplified, condition-based procedures to enhance operator response during high-stress situations. They also touch on the significance of testing procedures in the field, involving junior operators in the process, and the potential for automation in emergency response.


Traci: Welcome to the Operator Training Edition of Chemical Processing's Distilled Podcast. This podcast and its transcript can be found at chemicalprocessing.com. 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 and a frequent guest here on the Distilled Podcast. Hey Dave, how are you?

Dave: I'm doing great, Traci. How about yourself?

Traci: I'm doing fine. I'm curious: what have you learned this week? What's new that you've discovered?

Dave: Well, I was at a conference on process safety, and I was shocked at the number of companies that were talking about operator error and human error being a problem in process safety. And obviously, being a specialist in human performance, I found that interesting and think maybe we'll finally start tackling that issue of trying to reduce operator errors.

Traci: Always top of mind and never malignant. Right? Operator errors aren't there. They're not doing it on purpose, it's just the systems fail almost, right?

Dave: Well, exactly, and the crazy part is, of course, they think they're doing the right thing, and it just turns out to be wrong. When I first came out of college, I worked at Three Mile Island and the operators there during the accident they were taking the steps that were totally appropriate for what they thought was occurring. It's just that what they thought was occurring wasn't what was actually happening to the plant, and so their actions were 180 degrees from what you would want to do and exacerbated the accident and resulted in a multi-billion dollar incident and the demise of the nuclear power industry in the United States.

Traci: It's fascinating and human factors. Certainly, it's a topic that we could talk about for days and days and days, right?

Dave: Yes. I'm not sure how many people you'd get to hang on for that one, but yes.

Traci: Well, in today's episode, we're delving into the topic of reducing emergency procedures, and it seems counterintuitive. Why would we want to reduce emergency procedures? Wouldn't we want more procedures in place?

Dave: Well, there's a lot of people that would expound that view, oh, we need more procedures. But there's both a practical and a performance reason for trying to keep emergency procedures to a minimum. The practical reason is that the procedures have to be updated on a periodic basis every three to five years, and that can be a significant time drain on a company and a resource drain. So, the fewer the procedures, the faster you can update it. So that's just a pragmatic reason, but not certainly enough to justify trying to reduce it. You try to reduce it for the performance benefits of having fewer procedures.

 So, some research done by the Center for Operator Performance found that in emergency procedures, about 90% of the material, the steps are not unique. They're used in multiple procedures, and this is because the upset that you're using the procedure for they're going to drive you to a shutdown of the unit.

 And so, all those steps associated with the shutdown, those tend to be the same across all these different procedures, and only about 10% of the material is unique to it. Well, you talk about how most operators are trained. You train operators on procedures, how to use them, go through the drills with them, but by recognizing that most of the steps are the same, it makes it so much easier to learn because you don't really even need to learn the procedures. You just need to learn the steps because those are the steps that are used in the procedures in different combinations and different orders. So, for example, in this particular project that we did, they had 40 pages of emergency procedures. While you would potentially be training on those 40 pages as part of your training program, it turns out there were only four pages of unique steps.

 And so, what you really need to be doing is taking those steps and training on those, and now that's applicable to all these procedures. So, it makes it so much easier to train for the operators to learn. So, you've got this performance benefit by having fewer procedures. It makes the training on handling the upsets far simpler, so you have this performance benefit associated with it. One of the other things that you run into in procedures since we talked about Three Mile Island earlier, is one of the problems in most emergency procedures is, of course, they're event-based. You're taking a procedure for this power failure. You're taking a procedure for this loss of compressor or this procedure for whatever. One of the problems that was discovered at Three Mile Island is, of course, in order to select the correct procedure, I have to know what's going wrong.

 In other words, I have to correctly diagnose the problem in order to select the procedure. And so what we would be advocating is going to more just an emergency procedure, emergency shutdown type of procedure that you can have some steps at the beginning. If the compressor's running, you do these things. If it's not, you do these things so you can put some conditionals in. So the operators don't need to diagnose the problem in order to select the procedure. You just grab the procedure, and the procedure helps you diagnose what's happening. And we've done that at some facilities where you just use the sort of flowchart and conditionals to take the operators through. So, keeping the procedures to a minimum and possibly even going to just one procedure for emergency response. There's a lot of benefits in training. And then there are just benefits in human performance as far as not having to make sure that I've correctly diagnosed the problem before I select a procedure to respond to it.

Traci: What are some of the best ways to create these specialized procedures so that everyone knows their job and can work together? It sounds like there has to be this dance that's going on, and everybody needs to know their steps.

Dave: Oh, absolutely. That's a good way to put it. And then the other, you talk about that you're essentially following a script, the procedure is a script, and you need to make sure that everybody not only understands the script but understands the communication points. Where is the interaction that needs to happen, particularly between the console and the field? So, one of the problems in procedure writing is that oftentimes, it's done in a trailer somewhere by a senior operator who knows what's going on, but it is often not tested in the field. So, one of the key things with these procedures is that somebody needs to go out and walk them down and find out, does this make sense? How do we put the various steps in, are we highlighting the steps for the individual operators that are going to be performing them? So when you're doing these procedures, you need to test them out to make sure that they make sense.

 You've got them in the right order, that it can actually be done and be sensitive to the fact that, well, I've had procedures where if I'm a particular operator, my steps don't begin until page eight. And so I'm flipping through pages trying to find out, well, okay, where's my stuff that I have to do that's associated with? And be sensitive to say, well, wait a minute. We need to do something different here. We need to either break it up differently or orient it so that it's easier to get to. But then the practice of those procedures is necessary to make sure that you can actually do what's said, the procedure says to do, and that you have the skill just sort of built up in you. So I had a case where I was with an operator, and we were going to go through, I think it was a power loss procedure, and the operator says, "Okay, so what is it I'm supposed to do?"

 And I said, "Well, you're supposed to walk me through this emergency procedure." He says, "well, no, no, no, literally, what am I supposed to do?" And he did not have that basic knowledge, and I had to say, "Well, I'm not the operator, but usually securing the heaters is an early step." And he goes, "Okay, well, let's go do that." So that practice of the procedure, so that oftentimes the first several steps, you don't have time to grab the actual procedure. You may be out in the middle of the unit or at the far end of the unit when the lights go out and you need to have those first several steps wrote, and I know what I'm supposed to do, and then when there's a break, I'll go in and get the written procedure and make sure I've done everything. Obviously, this is an area where handheld devices that you can bring the procedure right out into the unit with you, but not everybody is at that point yet.

Traci: And you bring up a good point of having to... You said that sometimes it's the senior operator writing these procedures out and you have to test them out. And I think following through with that testing and making sure that the youngest operators, the ones with the least experience, understand the steps because the senior procedure writer may automatically know that this B follows A, but the newer operator may not know that. So I think that's an interesting point to make, that you have to walk through everything to make sure you don't miss those steps and make sure that everybody understands what's happening.

Dave: Well, exactly. Experienced people take things for granted. Well, I thought we all knew to do that, and the answer is no, we don't. And you have to make it explicit and say, as you said, if I'm starting a large spare pump, well, make sure the lube oil has been turned on for that pump before you try to start it up. Senior operator may say, "Well, you always make sure the lube oil's on before you start it up." It's like, well, yeah, you as a senior operator know to do that. Somebody with it could be their first day on their own and they may miss that particular step.

Traci: Especially in an emergency situation where tensions are high and adrenaline's flowing, you got to walk through those things.

Dave: Exactly, and that's why the more you can train on the procedures, the better it's going to be under those high-stress conditions. I know what I'm going to do. Share a quick sports analogy. There are a number of football teams that their first 10 or 15 plays are scripted that they're going to run these 10 plays regardless of the situation. And they do that because then the offense is very comfortable. They have a chance to get in the game. They get comfortable because they know exactly, okay, we're going to run these dead plays, and so I've got those down. They get in the game, it calms their nerves. Same thing during an upset.

 If I've trained on this and I know exactly what I'm supposed to do for the first number of steps, then that relieves the stress immensely. I can just go on sort of muscle memory, kick that program in, and I do this, I do this, I do this, I do this before even having to reference the procedure itself. But that gets back in again to the fewer procedures. The more those steps apply across the board, the easier it's going to be to train somebody on it doesn't matter what the event is, you need to do these things, and that makes it simpler to have that sort of rote response down and ready to go.

Traci: What about automation in terms of emergency procedures?

Dave: Well, that's something that I think is an area that plants don't take enough advantage of, and a lot of it is... I think it's because we don't really want to have emergencies, and so there's a tendency not to focus on designing for them, but we will, as we walk through these procedures with operators, you see all sorts of automation potential. Some of it is having the machines replace the muscle power of the individual. You'll come to a valve, and they're like, well, it takes 45 minutes to close this thing because I'm trying to close it against such a high-pressure system.

 And it's like, well, there's automation that can be done to, well, let's have a machine assist in this in some way. There are also cases where I have a lot of repetitive tasks particularly from a console operator standpoint, where I may have to go, I want to take the heat out of a section of the unit with this emergency. And to take the heat out of it, I may have to go to six different graphics and grab 12 different controllers, and on each of them, I'm going to put the controller in manual with the output at zero, and then I move to the next.

 Well, if what I really want to do is take the heat out, I should have an automated system that all I have to do is hit the command, the button that says, take the heat out of this system and it will go to those 12 controllers, put them all in manual at zero, and now that operator is not having to step through all these different graphics and all that time that is saved because they're not trying to do these little tasks frees up time to assess what's going on. Is the upset progressing the way I think it should or is something not happening that should be happening and I need operator intervention in there? So automation from the console standpoint, a lot of opportunity, a lot of potential there. Automation out in the field in terms of the sort of taking away human muscle power and replace it with machines because these can be very physically demanding tasks that the operator's expected to perform.

Traci: Dave, is there anything you want to add that we have not touched on that you think is important on this topic?

Dave: Well, I think the whole topic itself, the emergency procedures, procedures in general, it's a major focus in the industry and I think that some various people have talked about how no procedure is right, and what they meant by that is that every procedure is made with a set of assumptions and a premise for it. And more than likely with the time when that procedure is needed to be used, the assumptions or the premise that was used to create it's no longer valid. And so the procedure itself is really... It's not perfect for any given case, likely because that set of assumptions was some idealized version of the plant. And just understanding that these procedures are good guidelines. You need procedures, you need the guidelines, but they aren't the savior of what's going to be happening. A trained operators that know their job is what's going to allow for safe and efficient operation. The procedures are just a tool to help them become that well-trained operator.

Traci: Well, Dave, as always, I appreciate you giving us this insight, helping operators get into the game, as you mentioned, and have confidence in the emergency procedures as you point out just the guidelines, but having that confidence and being able to walk through and muscle memory with some of these points and then get to where they need to be. Thank you for that insight for today. Want to stay on top of operator training and performance? Subscribe to this free podcast via your favorite podcast platform to learn best practices and keen insight. You can also visit us at chemicalprocessing.com for more tools and resources aimed at helping you achieve success. On behalf of Dave, I'm Traci, and this is Chemical Processing's Distilled Podcast Operator Training Edition. Thanks for listening. Thanks again, Dave.

Dave: Thanks, Traci.

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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