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Control Room Operators – The Ugly Step Children

It’s true, operators are treated like ugly step children and the sad fact is they are the eyes, ears, and puppet masters of the process. There must be a good reason we have them. How much more value could they bring if we changed the way we looked at them? Is it time for a culture change? Some operators have increased productivity and efficiency, saved lives, improved product quality, reduced maintenance costs, and helped plant managers achieve their goals. Are your operators meeting and exceeding your expectations? Are your expectations set to low? Do you respect them and treat them as if they are the most important people in the plant?

If you have high expectations and want to achieve a “High-Performance Control Room” you should expect and demand more from your operators. But before you can do that, you must change the culture. In most organizations, the operators are not the most respected. We have seen and heard hundreds of stories. If you’ve spent time in a few control rooms, you probably know what I’m talking about.

Operators significantly impact organizational goals. Hopefully management set goals that were clearly defined and communicated to everyone involved with the operation. This way you can easily define the roles and expectations of each position, all of which should be aligned with the organizational goals. When you define the duties of the operators position you will quickly realize how important their job really is. Just check out this list of requirements for a good operator and you will see how important they really are. I remember hearing someone say, “operators should be picked up and dropped off every day in a limousine”. He recalled a story when an operator saved lives during a runaway chain of events.

Check out this operator job description:

Did you look at it? Still not convinced that we should change the culture? Think about how important the automation system is. It requires human monitoring and intervention for it to work properly. Operators and the automation system go hand in hand, they are one system. Why would anyone spend millions of dollars on an automation system only to fall short on monitoring and intervention? Self-driving cars will be on the market one day, would you ride in the back seat or would you prefer to have the option to intervene if necessary? In my opinion, the operator is the most important component to an extremely complicated system. When the automation system fails, the operator actions usually have economic, environmental, and life or death consequences.

They also save and make the organization money when things are running good. Operators use trends to identify ways to reduce costs. They can identify equipment issues that can be repaired before the equipment needs to be replaced, this eliminates costly shut downs. Operators can identify abnormal situations and predict and prevent major incidents from occurring. Do you have a communication system in place to pick the operators brains periodically to identify automation or efficiency issues? Think of the operators as automation system managers and provide them with an ergonomic work environment.

So how do we change the culture? Develop higher standards for the operators. Look at your qualification requirements, interview process, training program and materials, and clearly define your expectations. We call this an “Operating Philosophy” a document that defines how you run your operations. Treat operators as they are, the pilots of the process. Incorporate human factors engineering. Many companies use multiple vendors to implement their alarm systems, different ones to design and implement their HMI’s, and others to design and build their control rooms with no common philosophy or goals. So each does what they think is best and overall nothing works towards a common goal. What is that common goal? It is situation awareness, and more specifically the control room operator’s ability to detect, diagnose and respond to abnormal events. The solution is a High-Performance Control Room that integrates Alarm Management, HMI, and control desk ergonomics into a single solution founded on Human Factors Design.

Operators are not ugly step children, they are an untapped resource that can help you achieve your organizational goals, save lives, and meet customer demands. Words from a Process Supervisor:
“If operators are trained properly from the beginning to understand the equipment they are responsible for, they will become great operators. Once they have been trained in the individual components, you circle back to tie the entire system together on how each machine, pipe, valve, or indication affects the system as a whole. Don’t do this and what you have is a monkey pushing buttons at the prescribed time. Do this and the attitude is then passed down to each operator that follows provided the same enthusiasm is met. With better automation, operators tend to be trained in start and stop but not the how’s and why’s. Then when a problem arises that they do not understand or have trained for, they are lost and receive a brow beating for not preventing the issue from management. Not only are control room operators valuable for the safe operation and monitoring of the plant, they should be the highest paid hourly personnel on the site”.

UCDS is a Human Factors Engineering Company with 100 years of combined expertise in control room operations. We help operators detect, diagnose, and respond to abnormal situations so they can prevent major incidents, recover quickly, and operate within the desired, safe, set boundaries of the operating limits. Call Stephen Maddox at 512 868 6798 for more information. “Operators are the pilots of the process – So we give them wings”

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