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Podcast: Operator Training Do’s and Don’ts

June 14, 2024
On-the-job training seems efficient but there are better ways to train operators.

Operator training hasn’t really changed in the past 50 years, relying heavily on on-the-job training with experienced operators as instructors. However, these operators often lack formal training in teaching methods and techniques. In this episode, we highlight the potential benefits of simulation-based training and the use of dedicated trainers, as well as the advantages of a five-crew rotation system that allows for dedicated training time. We also stress that facilities should focus on sending their trainers to "train the trainer" courses to improve the quality of their training programs and incorporate best practices from other industries, such as aviation and healthcare.


Welcome to the Operator Training Edition of Chemical Processing's Distilled podcast. This podcast and its transcript, can be found at You can also download this podcast on your favorite player. I'm Traci Purdum, Editor-in-Chief of Chemical Processing, and joining me is Dave Strobhar, founder and principal human factors engineer for Bevelle Engineering. Dave is also the founder of the Center for Operator Performance. Hey, Dave, how are you?

Operator Training Practices, Procedures and Strategies

Dave: I'm doing good, Traci. Thanks for having me back.

Traci: Well, thanks for always joining us. You always have great intel and great ideas for podcast episodes. Today, investing in comprehensive operator training programs, including classroom instruction, simulations, and on-the-job training, is essential for maintaining a safe, efficient, and compliant chemical manufacturing operation. In the episode today, we're going to talk about how training methods vary across the industry. Dave, can you give us a little bit of a summary of what current process operator training practices and procedures and strategies are in place and being utilized?

Dave: Sure. We talk a lot about some of the new techniques and methods that are coming out with regard to training, whether you're doing micro-learning simulators or on-demand training. So the Center for Operator Performance had some questions as to, well, what is occurring with regard to training? What are people doing? And so we put out a survey a couple of years ago that covered over 350 operators across North America and Europe, both refinery and chemical operators, just trying to understand what kind of training you are going through. And unfortunately, those results weren't quite as progressive as we would've liked to have hoped for. Because we're in the training domain and we're pushing the envelope, we think, oh, well, everybody's out doing the same thing.

And what we found is that the vast majority of the training probably really hasn't changed in the last 50 years. The operators are still basically training on their unit equipment. So, there aren't separate simulators in widespread use. Certainly no one reported any sort of augmented reality or virtual reality to go in and look at a big machine or compressor or a fired heater to operate that in terms of what they were doing. Most of the training is basically at the mercy of whatever crew the operator is assigned to. So they're using these manuals, an operator's given the manual, and they're supposed to go through the various sections and walk down the lines, and eventually, they get signed off after having worked with a crew for a while. It used to be a joke or an observation that you could always tell what crew an operator was trained on by what they knew because they would pick up the idiosyncrasies of whoever was in charge of that crew.

So, it was not as advanced as we had hoped for, but I guess that means there's just a lot of opportunity to do more as far as the training world goes. Using dedicated trainers, that was less than 5% of their time in the training. 5% of the respondents said yeah, they were dedicated trainers. That's a change. You're starting to see more training departments being formed. Certainly, when I started, there was no such thing as a training department other than for the onboarding portion of it. But there's still that heavy reliance on the crew that you're assigned to, and here's your manual. Manuals have gotten a little bit better, but they're not perfect. And here, trainee, take this. Go learn it. And we're going to sign you off on it.

Are Process Operators Good Teachers?

Traci: That brings up a point of is the trainer trained enough to teach? There's a nuance to teaching what you know and making sure that the folks that you're training understand it. And from what you're saying, it sounds like on-the-job training seems to be the go-to. But let's talk a little bit about how that works and how can it be addressed to get a little bit better training? It sounds like there might be missing the mark here or there.

Dave: Well, yes, and it's interesting, how good they are as trainers varies depending on who you ask. The operators really don't feel that they are the best people to do the training; even though they're the ones that are being tasked with training these new operators coming in, they have a lot of hesitation for it. Now, once they go through and actually do the training, they feel much better about it and feel more confident. But that's typical of anything. You do gain some skills. But there is a real lack of knowledge on training theory and how you should train. And this on-the-job training is just being given to people who don't really have a grasp of how I teach somebody. How do they learn? How should I be providing the correct feedback for them? And just being able to do a job doesn't mean you can train somebody to do the job.

There was a line way back in the day. I'm going to tax your memory of even some of your older listeners here, Traci, but Yogi Berra was a baseball player for the New York Yankees for a number of years, and he was a very good hitter. And so he became a hitting coach and players that then had him as a coach said, "Oh, he is a horrible coach." He didn't know how he did it. He would say, "Well, just watch me and do what I do," because he hadn't thought about the science of hitting and what's necessary to do that. And that's the same thing when you get operators. You're going to have a very good operator, and they're like, "Well, he's one of our best, so we'll have him teach people." But he may not have thought about how he does it. We typically drive cars every day, but we don't sit around thinking about, well, what does it take to really drive a car? What are the critical skills that you have? You just do it.

So, these operators that are providing the training and giving it don't know what really makes a good operator; what should they be emphasizing? And that's probably where a lot of this hesitation is coming from where the operators are saying, "You're putting me with a trainee and you want me to make them qualified, and I want them to be qualified because I'm probably going to have to work with them, but I'm not entirely sure how do I do this? What is involved in the science of training?" And there's been a lot of research by the military on how you should be training people.

Traci: Definitely a skill set that you need to have in order to be effective. And going back to, is he the one that said deja vu all over again or was that Tommy Lasorda or somebody?

Dave: Yeah, that was Yogi Berra. So yeah, he was noted for his misuse of the English language.

Technical Training Vs. Non-Technical Training

Traci: When it comes to training, we know that trainers must be trained to be effective teachers, but what sort of training should be provided? Should it be technical training, non-technical skills training, or a combination of both?

Dave: Well, for the most part it's technical skills, how this heater works, how this pump functions. We have previously discussed a concept called crew resource management or team training that comes with non-technical skills. How do you communicate with people? How do you approach problem-solving and decision-making? And that's an area of, again, a major gap in industry-wide training programs. It's easy to function on the things, well, this is a compressor, this is a pump. In terms of what makes a good team, you have to know how to communicate well. How do I problem-solve? How do I work in a group to make sure that my concerns are brought forth?

So, this crew resource management, aviation, military, medical, they all use that, but that is almost totally lacking in the process industries to do anything in that domain. And some of it is because they tend to focus on training individuals and not training the group. But that non-technical training is very important. And that was, I think I've used in a previous podcast, that it began a story where a Republic Airlines flight ended up in the Potomac River because the pilot and co-pilot didn't function well as a team. And so the pilot said he knew what was going on, and they were taking off. And the co-pilot said, "Hey, we don't have enough airspeed." And the co-pilot was right. But how he needed to intervene and make that present was never taught. And since that time, the commercial aviation industry has spent a lot of time and effort in saying, "Well, that's where we really need to look at how we're training the people in this area." And process industries really do almost nothing for it.

Benefits of Simulation-Based Training

Traci: What about simulation-based training? Would that be the answer to all of this, eliminating the need for operators to be the trainers?

Dave: There is huge potential in simulation. And I have gotten a bad rap, I think, as being anti-simulator. And it's not that I'm anti-simulator, it's that I'm anti-wasting money. What you find is that those individuals who go through simulator training with a good training program were in a great deal. They feel more confident, particularly at handling abnormal situations. So good simulators can have a huge impact on the skill level of your operators; if they are used appropriately, it doesn't just happen. And that's where a lot of money is wasted that plant management, they'll have a training issue and say, "Well, we're going to buy a simulator." They go out and allocate the funds and procure the simulator, and there is no system in which that simulator is interwoven with the operator's schedules or duties. As such, it will draw dust and sit in the corner. Eventually, it's cannibalized for spare parts. So the simulators can, but it's not inherent. It just doesn't happen magically because I have purchased a simulator. Skill knowledge is going to be brought forward.

Now, probably the company I know best in terms of success with their simulators and what they've done, their operators are on a five-crew rotation. Most plants use a four-crew rotation and that covers all the shifts in a given year. A five-crew rotation is every fifth week. The crew is now doubling up on days. So, with the five-crew rotation, that fifth week can be used for training. So, it's built into their schedule. The nuclear power industry uses a five and even six-crew rotation. And that fifth week is typically used for training. And those plants have a structured training program. The simulators are integrated into it. The operators come in, they know what they're doing. There are dedicated trainers to work the simulator as opposed to, well, here's the manual; start it up and just go through the exercises. So, if part of an integrated and comprehensive training program, simulators are great. If you're just buying a simulator thinking, "Well, I will purchase it, and they will come, or they will learn," that's not going to be happening.

Benefits of Five-Week Crews

Traci: It's not the panacea for sure. And it seems brilliant to go to that five-week crew. Why wouldn't more facilities do the five or the six that you were talking about?

Dave: Well, there's the obvious that I have to hire more people, intentionally taking people off shift to do training, but they're also available for other things. And there's usually no shortage of work, prepared turnarounds or new procedures that you can use with that. But you have to manage these people now. Whereas a four-crew sort of manages itself. They know what to do. So, there are some plants that I know that went to a five-crew and went off of it because they had a hard time managing the people. They said, "Well, we just got too many people sitting around not doing anything." It's like, well, that's not their fault. You haven't figured out how to use them. So again, you can't just make it happen.

But it is a way. Particularly a lot of plants now are trying to staff more on days than at night. So, at nights, you go with a sort of skeleton crew, and then on days, you have more people, and that can be that fifth crew. So, I think with a lot of the safety systems that are being put in, it will become an easier thing to do. I may not have to hire as many additional people to do that. I just shift them from working nights when you really can't get anything done because you're too tired and you're just trying to get through that 12 hours, and I'm going to get them on days and we can do things like training with it as well as some of the other process safety things that you want to do with procedures and drawings and that sort of thing.

Tips to Improve Training

Traci: How can facilities strengthen the training they're doing within their facilities? At the beginning of this podcast, you talked about how a lot of the training is not happening as you had assumed it was going to be. So, there's a lot of room for improvement. How can people start?

Dave: Well, I think one of the problems is all the training departments think they're doing a good job because they're trying their hardest and they're doing their best. And I've harped on this before that we need some way to assess the quality of your training program. Are you getting the money out of it? And so that's sort of an industry-wide solution that is going to take some time, where we can judge a training program from the outside and say, "Hey, you're spending a lot of time on this, and plant X over here, they're spending half the time and getting twice the benefit." So that's sort of an industry-wide approach to it.

On an individual plant basis, probably the easiest thing, and you touched upon this earlier, is sending a group that are going to be doing the training to some courses, train the trainer. So getting that sort of what is the cost effectiveness of training? That's an industry-wide issue that's going to take some time to get fixed. So I think that's an industry-wide issue that's going to take years to resolve.

In the short term, in the immediate sense, probably the best thing to do to get your training program ramped up and moving in the direction that you want it to go is to send your people to train the trainer courses. Get them some learning and skills in the science of teaching. Hopefully, when they start seeing that, then in these courses, they'll learn what other people are doing, and it will prompt them to make changes in how they approach training. Potentially they will argue for changes within their training department itself. And so you'll start feeling internal pressure to, "Hey, we need to be better," or, "We're spending too much time here. We're wasting time over there."

And so after going through these train the trainer courses, getting ideas from other facilities that are doing things with scenario-based training or have dedicated simulators and dedicated trainers, we get this kind of grassroots movement to start pushing the training to use some of the things that I was talking about at the beginning. Should we be looking at a virtual reality compressor? Or I know there's a virtual reality heater that exists for doing heater light-offs that are out there. Can we do micro-learning or as-needed training that's there? So I think if you are in any kind of managerial position within a plant and you say, "Hey, I need better operators," rather than go out and buy a simulator, start sending some requests to your training department, or if not your training department, just to your operation supervisors and saying, "Hey, I think our people who are doing training need to understand more about the science of training." And there certainly are a variety of organizations out there. American Petroleum Institute is one, and AFPM is another that has training programs. Traci, Chemical Processing, do they have training programs?

Traci: No, no, but we write enough about it that, hopefully, they can at least get places to go.

Dave: Yeah. And with that, I think that will begin the changes we would like to see where everybody's moving up to what not only this industry in a small dose, but aviation, medical, military has found this is how you want to train people.

Traci: These are all great points about looking outside the industry to understand best practices. We see that often, so great advice there. Dave, did you have anything else you wanted to add on this topic?

Dave: No, not really. The comment you just made, one of the reasons for the creation of the Center for Operator Performance was to bring in some of these outside perspectives, get the researchers that work with these other domains to provide the impetus within our industry to use best practices, in this case, best practices with training. So another source of information would be And we can certainly help direct people onto what some of these training potentials are.

Traci: Well, Dave, I appreciate the time you put into this for us and helping us learn better, teach better, and make better operators out there. Want to stay on top of operator training and performance? Subscribe to this free podcast via your favorite podcast platform to learn the 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.

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