August 2014, Vol. 241, No. 8


Business Of Control Room Training

Craig Watson, Training Consultant, Pipeline Performance Group

Training of new employees is required for all businesses. For some jobs it may consist of an awareness followed by a gradual increase in duties and responsibilities or a complete boot camp approach in which one is educated on basic concepts and policies before taking on responsibility.

Required training must meet the needs of the business. The type of training required must meet the demands of the business. Therefore, training must be of high quality to provide the new person with an opportunity for success. It must also be practical from a cost and resource perspective. And, finally, the training must be effective. Any training that does not meet these three criteria will fail to produce the competency necessary for success.

In pipeline control rooms the complexity of tasks and the risk involved requires training to a high level of competency and confidence. To accomplish this level of training requires some fundamentals of pipelines, including system configurations, hydraulics or gas principles, equipment used, and system parameters. Additionally, knowledge of the commodities being transported, including risks, characteristics, and quality standards need to be learned. The regulatory emphasis on roles and responsibilities during abnormal and emergency conditions adds another layer of complexity.

For a trained controller to be competent is important, but that person should also be trained to the level of being confident as well. In order to achieve this, the trainee must be well-versed in fundamentals. This will allow for an understanding of operational issues and aid in troubleshooting and making quick decisions.

While the fundamentals provide the basis for a controller to understand operating conditions and possible variances, the real training should build on these fundamentals by actual on-the-job (OJT) training.

OJT training is used in most pipeline control rooms and allows an experienced controller to train the new controller at the employee’s own pace. This portion of the training provides actual experience and guidance over time, but is time-consuming.

The keys to quality OJT training include training of the experienced controllers serving as trainers and a structured program to track and document training on each task required by the controller. These keys add consistency and quality to the OJT segment. Standards are important for the trainer and the trainee.

Creation of a training program must fit the control room and its available resources while making the new controller as competent as possible.

In real life, it is difficult to allocate resources for ideal training when trainees are brought in in small numbers and on an irregular basis. Most control rooms use existing personnel to assist with the training, such as having subject matter experts from engineering and measurement, etc. provide classes on their specialties. Controllers on shift perform the OJT training.

The program should begin with basic awareness or orientation of the company, control room and its purpose. There should be some content on the way the control room works, its culture and its etiquette.

The training program should include a guide that contains all operating tasks, both normal and abnormal, with a check-off to document competency on those tasks. This document will also include questions for discussion to promote understanding. This document serves as a guide for the trainer and trainee as well as documentation for tracking progress.

Depending on the control room and complexity, this training may be followed by a final review with a supervisor or groups of controllers to certify competency before the person assumes a solo shift on the console.

This type of program uses many of the aspects of traditional control room training while adding some structure. It can be used in conjunction with a simulator if one is available. It is a cost-effective way to establish a training program without breaking the bank.

Many people question the effectiveness of their own training which is also a requirement in pipeline regulations. So, how do you answer the question, “Is your training effective?”

Early in my career, I worked with some experienced operators on a liquid petroleum tank farm. After only a few weeks on the job on a night shift, we experienced a control valve failure at a high flow rate on our main line into the station. This meant we had to manually adjust the control valve in the field. It was quite an experience, to say the least. For me, it was a frightening experience. No one was quite sure what to do.

Over the years this control valve seemed to fail every year or two, depending on usage. With each failure there were mini-training sessions for the operators so they could handle the situation until maintenance personnel could be summoned. With each failure, there would be a story of operators struggling with the valve to maintain control.

Later in my career, I began working in maintenance and realized this training was necessary for all operators and needed to be more effective. The maintenance technicians created a job aid and provided instruction on the control valve with diagrams. We also trained the operators by having them position the valve with the line down, thereby giving them hands-on instruction of actually operating the valve manually. This was thought to be excellent training at the time. But was it effective?

If you had asked me if it was effective during the training or after each operator operated the valve, I would have unequivocally stated yes. How could you possibly do better than to have them operate the valve after switching it from automatic to manual position?

About three months after the training, we had another failure. The operators that were trained could not operate the valve when needed. This was a shocking disappointment for them and for me. If they were not able to operate the valve, the training certainly was not effective. After this incident we set out to determine what had happened from a training perspective.

One item that we failed to recognize was the noise level. When the training was conducted there was no flow and the area was quiet. When in operation the noise level is extremely high and it changes in tone and in intensity with movement of the valve. This noise level created anxiety for those not accustomed to working the valve during actual flow conditions. Training could have been more effective by training with live line conditions.

Another cause of failure was believed to be the relative ease of the task with someone showing the trainee who then repeats the steps immediately afterward. With no “fresh” demonstration, the operators had no confidence in their ability to do it correctly.

This single task seemed simple when discussing the steps and the location of the controls but became confusing when not performed on a regular basis in real-life conditions. It was determined to increase effectiveness that a periodic drill requiring valve operation would be helpful.

This changed my opinion of training and its perceived value. I define “effective training” as an event that provides information or skill to perform a task or group of tasks correctly, every time. Whatever the definition, attempting to measure a training program or event for effectiveness can be difficult. So, how do we do it?

In the example concerning the control valve operation, the proof was in the performance when required. Due to improper performance, we realized the training would have to be changed to be effective.

Is your training effective? You may want to review operating logs, alarm logs, lessons learned programs, etc., to see if any training problems can be uncovered. In the tasks that are critical and rare, it is best to drill periodically to see if there are any training gaps and improvement opportunities. Did your controllers perform their tasks as trained?

Last but not least, ask the people on the job. Are you comfortable doing this task? Can you do this with confidence in a crisis? Would you demonstrate the performance?

Many people struggle with defining training effectiveness and then demonstrating how that training is effective. The best way to check effectiveness is to review any operating errors or issues to determine if task performance is a contributing cause. If you have performance issues where a lack of knowledge is a root cause, then you have ineffective training.

Everyone wants their employees and peers to perform correctly and be knowledgeable about their jobs. In many cases we take for granted the training delivered and then cannot understand when someone fails to perform up to expectations. A good training program should be of high quality, using quality content and a structured program for tracking and documenting the process.

For cost-effectiveness, leverage the resources you have such as subject matter experts, experienced controllers and reference material. Make sure reference material is readily available and easy to use.

On a regular basis, normally annually, review the training program and seek opportunities for improvement. Make sure the training is not leaving gaps that may lead to performance issues. For effectiveness of the program, review operation data, including lessons learned and promote sharing of operating issues among controllers.

Also make sure the program connects with the intended audience by reviewing with new trainees and trainers the goals of continual improvement.

Author: Craig Watson is training consultant at Pipeline Performance Group and a former training services leader for Colonial Pipeline Company. He has 38 years of experience in pipeline operations, maintenance, management and training services.

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