Transferring Plant Operator Expertise

Chemical Processing magazine has a great article, Build Operator Expertise Faster, written by folks from the Center for Operator Performance (COPS). The article provides recommendations for how best to transfer the expertise of experienced plant operators who are rapidly approaching retirement age. The article opening well describes the challenge:

Most process plants are struggling with the dual challenges of increased requirements for safe and efficient operation and expected retirement of a large portion of the workforce. Sites likely will lose substantial expert knowledge at a time when it’s of greatest need. This will ratchet up pressure to more quickly develop expertise in newer operators.

I highlighted some of COPS’ research on operator performance in earlier posts. As one of the consortium’s founding members, Emerson is applying the research in its product development efforts to improve usability for operators, engineers, and other plant staff members.

University engineering curriculum stress not only theory, but also practical application in labs, programming courses, internship opportunities, etc. It’s a way to apply the knowledge and gain experience in what it takes to be a practicing engineer. Likewise, for operators the authors write:

Acquiring knowledge isn’t enough, though. Novices also must engage in deliberate practice applying that knowledge, recognizing key information, setting goals and executing actions.

Some do’s and don’ts include don’t have experienced operators give “data dumps” of what they know, do review actual events and ask inexperienced operators for possible causes. Performing scenarios of production rate changes and abnormal situations are also good learning experiences.

In an earlier operator training post featuring Emerson’s Jeff Hackney, I described a project where these scenarios were developed to train operators:

…simulation includes a dynamic model with startup and shutdown exercises and 33 training scenarios to help prepare the operators to work through simulated abnormal plant situations. Instructor graphics allow the refinery instructor to perform activities such as isolation valves opening and closing, and manual drain and filling valves not controlled from the plant DeltaV automation system.

The authors note one of the unintended consequences of improved automation technology is that it can diminish expertise. As the systems get smarter and perform more advanced controls it takes away some of the analytical skills required. The authors note:

Automation can diminish expertise in three ways. First, it can dull the skills of veterans. Second, it can slow the rate of learning, so people take much longer to build up their expertise. And third, it can teach dysfunctional skills that will actively interfere with building expertise in the future.

They recommend creating visual decision trees that reflect the decisions the advanced controls are making. This helps operators to see the changes and assess why they are being made to understand the process better.

There’s also some do’s and don’ts presented on on-the-job training and tailored operating training based upon expertise level. The article is worth reading if you are facing the prospects of experienced operators approaching retirement age.

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