Pictorial Job Aids: The Next Step In Operator Qualification

June 2010 Vol. 237 No. 6

Thomas H. Robinson, P.E.

There is a saying that one picture is worth a thousand words. After more than 32 years in the natural gas industry, I agree with that saying but with a caveat: it must be the correct picture and it must be presented with a concise and meaningful caption. Then, it will be worth many thousands of words.

This article describes the next step in the evolution of the operator qualification process: the development and use of operator qualification (OQ) “job aids” in the form of good pictures and diagrams with meaningful captions.

The pictorial job aids are much more effective and efficient to develop and use than the many thousands of words of explanation of how an operator qualification sub-task human error occurred. This next step of evolution is clearly needed now that we are more familiar with the fairly new OQ process. We can see weaknesses in quality assurance and we are dealing with the growing challenges associated with worker attrition and changing technologies.

For many decades prior to the 1990s, almost all related organizations assumed that the basic skill levels of new employees and the historical training and developmental processes were adequate and that knowledge and performance gaps would be readily identified and rectified. Industry experience has taught us otherwise.

From 1987-2003, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) worked on developing a standard concerning the qualification of key personnel in the industry. In 1992, Congress recognized that workers needed to be capable and trained to recognize and deal with abnormal operating conditions. In 1994, the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the industry decided that there needed to be a critical evaluation of each worker’s capabilities as it related to specifically identified tasks (OQ sub-tasks). In 1996, the DOT chose to have the industry and the DOT work to develop a final rule. Even though there were still differences of opinion, the final ruling was issued in 2003, which focused on reducing the likelihood of human error in the performance of OQ tasks.

Currently, there are cited generic tasks to be evaluated with recommended evaluation frequencies within the Code and guidelines. The basic litmus test of an OQ program should be whether you feel confident sending out a worker, who is Operator Qualified (OQed), to perform that particular sub-task. Unless you have critically reviewed the degree of evaluation: (1) the scope and completeness of questions; (2) the degree of physical aptitude that is required, where applicable, to pass; and (3) the frequency and the associated complexity and criticalness of the associated task, one cannot be confident sending out an OQed worker to perform that particular task.

If all of the above areas are found to be satisfactory, there is still a facet that is missing from the program. If the subject task is elaborate and it is not frequently performed, the literal OQ process does not adequately deal with this situation. A task that is elaborate and not frequently performed may have been satisfactorily performed by the employee during the evaluation process, but, the employee may not have retained the familiarity with the task requirements to identify abnormal operating conditions or to satisfactorily complete the assigned task.

Clearly, complex and critical sub-tasks that are very infrequently performed need to be carefully reviewed prior to being performed. It is not reasonable to assume that someone who successfully “passed” OQ training many months prior or – in some cases – several years prior to the need to perform this sub-task, will be adept at performing the subject sub-task without taking an additional step.

One could reduce the OQ-training-to-performance time gap by increasing the evaluation frequency for such a sub-task. In the absence of other alternatives, the frequency of evaluation would need to be adjusted based on the degree of frequency, complexity and criticalness. However, increasing the frequency of evaluation increases the cost of the overall program, increases the non-productive time for employees being evaluated and leaves a lot of room for improvement as compared to the alternative that addresses these issues and offers an improved degree of human performance by using specifically designed pictorial job aids.

Pictorial Job Aids
What are job aids? Job aids are straightforward and concise guides to perform the subject sub-task. The job aid should list required personal protective equipment as well as associated safety and work equipment. Clear pictures and/or diagrams showing how the sub-task should be performed are a key part of the job aid. Warnings against potential procedural pitfalls, including many of the abnormal operating conditions that may be encountered and the associated safeguards, should be included in the job aid.
Other associated job aids should be referenced in the particular job aid. As technology moves forward, the traditional hard copy job aids (typically the hard copy job aids are laminated for the field forces) will give way to electronic documents and videos. There is no recommended limit to the number of job aids, but there is an absolute need for job aids for infrequently performed complex and/or critical sub-tasks.
What are complex sub-tasks? These are sub-tasks that have many non-intuitive steps involved. Infrequently performed sub-tasks are those that have a likely probability of being performed less than once per month. Critical sub-tasks are sub-tasks that have either many potential associated safety and/or procedural pitfalls or have potential major operational and/or safety-related consequences involved, if it is performed improperly.

The first step is to identify the sub-tasks that clearly need job aids. This step may likely lead to identifying many more sub-tasks. You may have one sub-task covering many different types, brands or sizes of material, but upon closer review, you may discover there are some very different, elaborate, handling and safeguarding procedures associated within this sub-task that may call for additional sub-tasks being established and associated job aids being created.
You will clearly find sub-tasks that are sufficiently complex to need job aids. The frequency issue will need to be evaluated carefully. You may have material or sizes of material included within an existing subtask that are so scarce within your system that they are rarely dealt with, which suggest an additional sub-task and/or a specific job aid is needed. You may have divisions within your company that infrequently perform a sub-task that is frequently performed in another division.

Once the list of needed job aids is identified, personnel with operational and procedural background will need to be identified to develop the job aids. You must keep the end user in mind at all times when developing them because they must be clear and concise. They must be consistently and effectively rolled out to the end users. Once implemented, the job aids will need to be readily available to the workers. They must be critically reviewed periodically.

Additionally, existing standards and procedures will need to be critically reviewed to ensure there are no gaps. Any gaps in procedure or safety found in existing standards and work procedures will need to be bridged. Many gaps will be discovered as job aids are developed. They will need to be developed and periodically reviewed for correctness and coverage. New technologies, equipment, and materials may require additional job aids and, potentially, sub-tasks. Whenever a critical sub-task is performed, the review of the respective job aid must be appropriately documented.

We must always keep the letter and the intent of the Code in mind: to ensure that the workers are qualified to perform the work and to reduce the probability of and consequence of incidents caused by human error. By critically evaluating your standards and procedures and your current OQ procedures at the sub-task level, the need to be confident in the qualification and training will be met.

You will also need to have confidence in the application of the sub-tasks in the field. Job aids will clearly help you achieve this aspect of the intent of the Code, while at the same time provide a communications tool that assures that the employees have been provided with the most current procedures and technologies available to safely, effectively and efficiently perform their assigned tasks.