Being a control room operator is very much experience based, so how can they learn how to maintain safe operation?
For starters, there is no formal education or certification needed to become a control room operator. This can be frustrating because it is difficult to know if you are doing a good job or not, as there are no standardized ways of measuring success. Control room operators often have a background as a process- or logistics-operator, or are straight out of trade school. However, there might be some mentoring programmes, where a new operator can shadow an experienced one, but this is not always the case.
This means that for most of the time you are learning on the job. Other than that, most assets have a simulator where the control room operators can go through some of the scenarios most likely to happen at that plant. This includes going through how to start up after a shutdown, as this is something that happens quite rarely. However, there are not a lot of instances where they run through a simulation of an incident that has happened previously at another asset. This means that there is a potential for even further learning from others, not only from your own plant.
Operators are working with limited support
However, it can be difficult to get people to cooperate in learning from each other on an asset, especially during production. In many cases, the control room operator doesn’t have the necessary support when an incident escalates. There might be more people in the control room during dayshifts, but fewer people on call during the nightshifts, meaning that if something were to happen, it can be difficult to call on additional help. This means that there is limited support to get from anyone and the operator is often left alone making the difficult decisions. Often times it has been years since last incident and shutdown, so even if there were other people in the control room, you might experience that no one has ever participated in the shutdown of the plant before, neither scheduled nor otherwise.
Another issue can be underreporting of human error, especially user mistakes or blunders, as it can be uncomfortable to put these into a system that everyone has access to. It is difficult to share experiences after these types of incidents due to poor statements from the operators.
Investigations of incidents
Also, whenever there is an incident, an investigation is started. These are HAZOPs, 4 why, root cause investigations, and more. The information from these investigations is often stored in document databases and can be difficult to find if you are in a situation that requires you to act quickly. The information is sometimes used to update operating procedures. The Petroleum Safety Authority will also conduct investigations, but only if there were safety risks, not if it was only a loss of production.
Shift based learning
The control room operator job is also shift based, meaning some might experience that they work for a while, and never experience an incident during operation. Some operators also change between being in the control room or outside, so they have another factor that complicates the work even more. Whenever there is an abnormal situation during production, this will either be discussed during shift handover, or if it is a serious operating problem, it will be noted as an incident. Shift changes can be a stressor to production if different operators have different ways of operating the plant. The production is dependent on who is currently operating, and if an abnormal situation occurs, the response is also dependent on the control room operator at that time. Depending on who they learnt from and how they learned it, the follow up, how they keep up with production, and what pattern recognition they use for a situation can all be different. This can lead to non-optimized operation, in worst case, dangerous operation with risks of environmental impact, flaring, and reduced safety.
How can we learn from others?
It should be possible to learn from other control room operators to a larger extent. Some options could be running things together with more people present during a learning phase. Having a mentoring program whenever someone new starts their job as a control room operator and having more on-site training. Developing a system for sharing knowledge, easier to use than the ones currently available. Getting user groups together to discuss and collect experiences in a knowledge management system. In general, it is all about observing the processes, analyzing the incidents, storing the information, and sharing it with other control room operators.