Aiming for Operator Excellence

LET'S say you notice a safety-related problem early enough to prevent real harm. And you address it scientifically, analyzing it as no one else has, then share your results with not only the industry you’ve set out to aid, but also others who are having the same problem. Is there a MacArthur prize for safety altruism? There should be. The nominee I’m describing is Wright State University’s Center for Operator Performance (Dayton, Ohio), a young pup with big ideas.

Wright State and Beville Engineering Inc., a Dayton human factors engineering consulting company, created the center to enhance operators’ performance in petrochemical control rooms. The “go” decision followed a 2006 operator expertise pilot project sponsored by British Petroleum, Flint Hills Resources LP, Marathon Pipe Line LLC, NOVA Chemicals, ABB, Emerson, and Suncor Energy, but the center’s genesis was a debate during an industry conference two years ago, said David Strobhar, Beville’s chief executive. New types of displays with new graphics to control processes were coming on board, and managements across the industry wanted to know whether they were worth the cost. “This interface is known to be key in making correct decisions,” Strobhar explained. Data from other industries, such as aerospace, indicated displays that operators like best aren’t the ones on which they perform best, he said. Useful, yes, but they needed real performance data for petrochemical operators. They want to know which displays enable best performance and which decision aids allow operators to correctly identify “upsets” before they occur. The pilot study evaluated what constitutes an expert pipeline controller or refinery operator. Looking at three groups, it identified 13 areas—only five of which were common to all three. The center’s next research, coming late this summer, will quantify training improvements developed from the expertise study and show how best to present operating data.

“Obviously, a lot of this is safety-related,” he said. “We don’t want to keep this a secret. We’re trying to reach out and provide this to other people in the process industries. The goal is to get the foundation of good data, evaluated on a scientifically rigorous basis, to the community,” including the nuclear power industry, pharmaceutical plants, and other industries where process safety and operator performance are ongoing concerns.

The center’s next meeting will be July 25 in Dayton, Strobhar said. To join as a participating member, suggest research projects, or view results, visit the center’s Web site.

This article originally appeared in the June 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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