Developing and maintaining competent process operators is critical to business performance in the process industries. This blog post focuses on four signal classes that are leading and lagging indicators of competency gaps in process operators. The evidence of history is that if not addressed, these gaps increase the risk of non-optimal outcomes leading to reduced performance or even worse business failure. Take action now to identify vulnerabilities in your operations.
I have divided the four signal classes in two leading indicators (operator performance and work environment) and two lagging indicators (production performance and external factors).
Two Leading Indicators
A review of operator performance reveals fundamental gaps in competency. Can staff provide adequate explanation of the process, what are the important process variables and how are they controlled, what are the typical disturbances that the systems need to accommodate? How are procedures managed and implemented, is there good knowledge of standard procedures and when to apply them with follow-up reviews on compliance to the standards? Are operators consistently completing tasks, making good use of the control systems with effective upset condition management? Lack of process and control knowledge of complex unit operations such as reactors and complicated separation columns (e.g. multi-draw, columns with pumparounds, divided wall columns, use of heat pumps) increases risk because these are often the units which are most critical to process safety and economic performance. Poor understanding impedes the operator’s ability to troubleshoot the unit when things go wrong leading to higher risks to profitability and safety.
Consider the work environment. Do people show symptoms of high stress and low morale? Is there a high turnover of staff and high absenteeism? The job of an operator is high skilled, requires knowledge and high level thinking ability. Operators will feel worried that they cannot run the plant well because they lack the necessary competency. This increases their typical stress and makes the levels of stress higher than necessary during upsets. Not only does this mean that they may not respond quickly to problems and may be very cautious when dealing with upsets but may also have long term health implications (both mental and physical). Low competency levels lead to a number of problems which in turn lead to low morale. Problem areas can be higher incident rates and lower profitability. Low morale aggravates the situation as the operations team will be less willing to undertake extra activities, propose improvements and support change. To be effective staff need to be motivated and engaged. A low quality work environment will have adverse effect on competency of key staff to perform tasks diligently and if the unexpected happens, recover plan stability before an incident escalates.
Two Lagging Indicators
On a more macro scale the impact of competency can be observed through indirect measures such as poor external reviews by safety and environmental authorities identifying human performance as an issue. Cost of insurance rising to reflect underwriter’s view of risk based on observed increases in upsets and environmental emissions. Customer satisfaction issues may be observed such as increasing difficulty to maintain supply on time or product may frequently fail to meet required quality or specification requirements. If these things start to occur customers could start to look for new suppliers.
Trends in production performance can reveal competency issues. Signals to look out for are operating costs rising due to lower yields, higher energy and chemicals costs and falling catalyst activity. Is there more re-run of off spec products and is there a rising number of incidents at the plant? While it is true that some of the indicators identified here may be arising from other root causes, it is also true that operator competency contributes to operations team performance for safe, reliable and profitable operations.
Once you have identified gaps, the next step is to decide what to do about closing the competency gap. The complexity of the problem means that deciding what to do can be challenging. I will discuss this in the second part of this two-part series.