Train operators faster

Faster Ways To Train Chemical Operators

Jan. 19, 2024
Simulators and virtual reality offer objective ways to measure and improve training.

The discussion revolves around operator training efficiency in the industry. Despite decades of training, companies often lack feedback on its effectiveness. New technologies like simulators and virtual reality offer objective ways to measure and improve training. Identifying and addressing deficiencies is crucial, similar to the aviation industry's approach. Differentiating between console and field operators, the former presents more straightforward opportunities for measurement. Training programs should adapt to an operator's existing knowledge when learning multiple units, reducing time and improving efficiency.


Welcome to Chemical Processing's Distilled podcast series. This podcast in its transcript, can be found at 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. Hey Dave, welcome to 2024.

Dave: Thanks, Traci. It's New year. Everything starts from scratch.

Traci: Yes, that's a nice blank slate for us. And for today's topic, we're gearing up for the new year and we're going to talk about how to make operator training faster. So, my question to you is, operator training has been going on since the start of industry. Shouldn't we have achieved maximum efficiency by now?

Dave: Well, you would think so, and because everybody does it. And the problem is very few companies, no company that I know of, really track whether the training they're giving is doing the desired function, creating the operators with the skills and knowledge that they want. They simply provide training and hope that when it's all said and done, the operators have it.

And so without that feedback, you can't tell whether we are spending too much time on training, not enough time on training, is it even what works? What doesn't work? And as a result, if you look at the training programs across the industry, they vary... A huge variance in how the training is done and the time that it takes to do that. So, the efficiency requires that you actually understand what you're getting for your cost. I'm putting these resources into it, but they really don't know is it doing its job? And I've talked to a number of people in operations who would say it's not, and they're not happy with the operators that are being turned out. So, despite the amount of money that's spent on it every year, and it's been going on for decades, it is really an area that is fraught with inefficiencies.

Traci: So, how do you monitor to see if training is effective? Is there a way to even do so?

Dave: Well, and that's something that is becoming easier with new technology that is available. Previously, it would be doing some assessments of individuals on the job and trying to understand do they have the requisite skills and knowledge be it a much more subjective capability. But now we have simulators, we have virtual reality in which we can provide the training and you can actually see and measure the performance of the individuals and judge did the training do its job. So, in training there are really four key phases of training. There's the instruction, sort of a classroom. Somebody's going to tell you, this is what I want you to do. There's a second, demonstration, here's how you do it. The third is practice. That is what is woefully lacking in the industry. And then the fourth is feedback. How did you do? Well, now with simulators for console operators and virtual reality for field operators, that third part, the practice and feedback can be done and you can close the loop and find out did the training work?

 So, if I'm training a console operator to respond to some sort of upset on the unit, well, I can say, "I want you to stabilize the unit in response to a momentary power loss." Or something like that. "I want you to stabilize the unit within 20 minutes." Well, you can put them in a simulator and you can have them do it and start the clock and were they able to do it? If they weren't, where did they have difficulty? Where were the problems? So, with the new technology, you can do that practice and feedback and see did the training accomplish what it is that I wanted to do? And you can make it objective rather than subjective. So, rather than, "Yeah, I think that person knows what they're doing." You can actually look at it and measure it against some objective standard and say, "Yes, this person knows this." Or, "This person has this skill in order to make that happen." So, some real opportunities industry-wide to actually start making training efficient and more standardized across the industry.

Traci: What happens if you discern that someone is not trained properly? My brother-in-law is a pilot, and he has to go through training, if he doesn't pass that training, he can no longer fly until he passes. Is that a similar situation here or do they just retrain them and retrain them or what happens?

Dave: Well, what should happen is something similar, which is essentially you would take them off of the position they're in and send them through training and until they've demonstrated it and then say, "Okay, you've fixed that deficiency." And put them back in the job. There's one company that I do know of where they went with a more advanced look at training and they found that they had an operator that did not have an understanding of the system that he was controlling. And they were quite shocked and surprised about that because everybody thought, "Well, this person, he really knows it well." What was confounding it is the person was very verbal and they liked to talk a lot. They would express themselves and so they thought this person knew how this system functioned. They put them through an objective training program and he failed. And they said, "Wow, we cannot allow this person to operate the console."

And so they disqualified him from being a board operator and sent him out back to being a field operator. Interestingly, in contrast, there's an operator that they thought was going to struggle, and this individual far exceeded expectations on their understanding of the system, but they weren't as verbal. He was just a quiet person. And they were confusing how verbal the individual was with the knowledge they contained. And they found that the very verbal person that they thought was really smart wasn't as smart as they thought, and they found that the quiet person that they had suspicions about, they knew it like the back of their hand. So, as the example you said with the pilots, if you don't demonstrate the skill, you can put them back in training, assuming you think that they can actually gain the skill until they acquire it and then let them go back to their normal job.

And in the initial training or the very first training that you do, there's usually a prescribed time for that. In other words, if I'm hired as an operator and I go through the initial training program, and if at the end of that they say, "Well, you didn't pass the tests." Or whatever, then they give them a certain period of time to try to catch up and fill the gaps and then they can retake the test and hopefully so they get one shot at it like that before they would say, "Oh, you just can't make it." But that's for a new hire. If you've got an existing operator, hopefully they could do some of the jobs well, or again, this is the whole problem with the training program. How did this person qualify on the unit out of their training? And then we find out later that they really don't have the skill and knowledge that is needed.

Traci: They're good at talking the talk but not walking the walk. And I know there's a joke in there somewhere for politicians on both sides, right?

Dave: Yeah. And that's the problem with subjective testing is personality factors come into play. Well, I like this person, or they're a good person to have on the crew, because they're funny. Well, okay, but they don't know how to start up a pump. You need to have that objective measure in there to take those personalities on both sides of both the trainee and the trainer evaluator so that when you say, "Yes, this person has the skill and knowledge that I need them to have for this particular job."

Traci: You brought up console and field operators. Are the opportunities the same for them?

Dave: Well, the console probably there's greater opportunities simply because you're measuring the process and that they're controlling and so you can more easily see that. Do they have the skills that are necessary either through the simulator or they'll go through enough events that you could look at their performance during download the data from the process and see how they performed on that. So, the console certainly is easier. The field is more difficult, because the tasks are a little more, not subjective, but they, a lot more leeway in how they're performed and what they're done. But that's where, again, I think virtual reality has the opportunity or taking people out in the field. There's ways to do it. It's a little bit harder, but it's not that it can't be done.

So, I've been with operators in one of the requirements. We're going through a procedure on an upset and they have to make some diversions of the product. I have to send the product to off spec, because the unit's crashed, and they'll come up to this valve manifold where there may be a dozen valves at the plot edge of the unit, and they have to manipulate them to change the lineup. And I'll see them stare at it for a while and struggle while they're trying to figure out, "Okay, how do I do that? And which one am I supposed to turn? Which one am I supposed to open? Which one am I supposed to close?"

You can do that out in the unit with the operators. So, if lining up to off-spec you defined as a critical task; you don't need a virtual reality for that. You simply can go out and say, "Okay, hey, I want you to show me what you would do. We're going to walk it through to line up to off-spec. Well, I'm going to close that valve. I'm going to open this one. I'm going to close this one open..." And so on. And you can see were they able to do it and how quickly they were able to do it. So, given that you're probably testing them on a nice day when they may need to do this in freezing rain at 04:00 AM, you can say, "Yeah, this person has this down, or they don't." Hopefully during that particular exercise, as I've gone through it, somebody would say, "Hey, we really should label these valves rather than having the operator have to do it from memory."

They have to deal with what they're given. And oftentimes, what they're given is unlabeled valves that they just have to kind of say, "Okay, I think I do this one and this one and this one." And then, hopefully, they do it correctly. So, field operators a little bit harder. It could still be done. Console operators, again, you either have a simulator or you can look at the process data and the center for operator performance; we talked about getting that. And can we tell the difference between the operators based on the process data? So, you go to any supervisory person in a control room and you could ask them to rank order for me, the quality of your operator. Who's your best, and who's your weakest? And they have it in their mind who that is and who those people are and you can get that list.

And then the idea was, "Well, let's look at some different events they've gone through and do we see a difference in that individual's." That particular project didn't go anywhere because there was a real fear that if we did that then than whoever was the weakest would lose their job. And what was designed to be a tool to improve training, who needs training could be wielded as a machete to just say, "Well, we're just going to get rid of the weakest people." But I think that is an opportunity that companies can have to just assess. Do they know that if they use these tools correctly to look back and say, "This person's trying. They just weren't taught what they needed to do or they don't have enough practice doing what they need to do." And modify their training.

Traci: Now, what about operators that have to learn multiple units? There's got to be challenges there. So, dangers of getting confused or just having to learn too much.

Dave: Well, and that's where one of the real inefficiencies in training comes about is they treat learning a new unit as though you just came off the street. Even though I may already know a unit very similar to that and so they don't take advantage typically of that sort of common knowledge that an operator would possess. If I go in and I've already learned a unit that has a fired heater on it, and I'm going to learn a new unit that also has a fired heater, I don't have to start from scratch and it's not going to take me as long, because I already have some of the basics. I just need to learn what's different about this new unit. But too many of the training programs, they have this one size fits all in the one size is for somebody that is coming off the street.

So, where you're trying to learn multiple units, you really need to break it down into what's the basic principles, what are the common elements of the major pieces of equipment? And then, okay, for this particular unit, is there anything special or unique that the individual needs to know? And that can dramatically reduce the training time associated with it, because you've taken, I know one particular plant, an operator was having to learn four different units and it was taking nine months on each unit, because they were going through a lot of the same material.

Well, by the time they got to the fourth unit, they'd likely forgotten a lot from the first unit, because it's been so long since they were there. So, there's an advantage in terms of the operator trying to learn this, where it's like, well, just once you understand the basics now all we need to do is teach you what's unique and different. Training time's reduced, the operators are getting more familiarity, because they're qualifying sooner and can apply their skills and knowledge and keep them up. And so the overall efficiency is greatly improved by breaking it down into, "Okay, we're going to teach you basic information, and then for each of these units you have to learn what's different about them and what do you need to know."

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

Dave: So, I will share a story that the Center for Operator Performance, we've been developing an objective test on distillation, and the idea is we're going to give this same test across multiple companies and multiple sites within those companies to see how they vary or do they vary? So, it's a multiple choice, 50 question tests, and it has been a major effort to get that through just because of different views as to what's important and how the question should be written.

So, I appreciate the training departments that have difficulty creating these objective tests. You would think it would be very easy, but we've discovered it's been very difficult or time-consuming to create this test. But hopefully with this test, each company can assess, they can assess crews. Does A crew know distillation better than D crew and we need to provide more training? Or is refinery A, their operators all scored significantly higher than refinery B? What's the training program at A? Why did they know this better? Can we learn something from that? So, we're in the process. The test is about ready to be sent out and administered, and hopefully we'll have the results back and I can share with you those results sometime in the future.

Traci: That sounds like a great podcast in the future, for sure. And Dave, you always are proving your expertise in the field and your dedication to continue your own learning journey on operator training, and we appreciate that insight. If you 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 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.