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Operator Performance: Check Your Hose

Jan. 16, 2014
We Often Pay More Attention to and Take Better Care of Our Workplace Facilities, Processes and Products Than We Do Our Own Health
About the Author
Jim Montague is the Executive Editor at Control, Control Design and Industrial Networking magazines. Jim has spent the last 13 years as an editor and brings a wealth of automation and controls knowledge to the position. For the past eight years, Jim worked at Reed Business Information as News Editor for Control Engineering magazine. Jim has a BA in English from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and lives in Skokie, Illinois.

Check Out Montague's Google+ profile.

Way back, when I worked for some of the Chicago area's weekly newspapers, there was a pre-canned car-care column that seemed to show up every winter and scold readers to "check your hose" among other cold-weather advice. The less mature among us immediately turned it into an inside joke, and it quickly became an informal greeting, too.

I'd pretty much forgotten about it in all the intervening years, but it suddenly popped into my head the other day shortly after I was assigned the March cover article on "enhancing operator performance." Now, I didn't make the connection between radiator hoses and operator performance right away, but there was an intervening incident that I think brought the two concepts together in my mind.

This catalyst was the literally gut-wrenching agony of a kidney stone or gallstone attack that floored me, oddly enough, as I was riding on the Metro-North Railroad out of New York a few days ago. So, I took a detour to the ER at Vassar Brothers Hospital at the end of the line in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; received an ultrasound exam and a prescription for a few painkillers; and was back on my feet in about seven hours.

However, even as the pain was ramping up back on the train, I thought, "Maybe if this is really bad, I can get a column out of it, but how does it relate to process control? Ow, ow, ow!" And then, between muffled yelps, I thought of my operator performance assignment, and the fact that my internal pipelines, vessels and process units were blocked someplace, and the excessive pressure and lack of flow were setting off alarms like an old, ailing distillation column.

My initial comparison was reinforced by the nurses and doctors at the hospital, who quizzed me on what I had for breakfast and then nodded knowingly when I reported that I'd enjoyed a couple of breakfast burritos and a sausage and cheese muffin—a perfect, high-fat trigger for a gallstone episode. It seems inappropriate feedstock can cause all kinds of 50-year-old process applications to trip and crash—including me! I had obviously failed to check my hose for "excessive wear, leaks, debris or obstructions."

So besides making repairs (I'm getting on the short list for an arthroscopic gallbladder removal), what lessons can well-run process applications teach operators about improving their own personal operations? Well, the first has to be that we often pay more attention to and take better care of our workplace facilities, processes and products than we do our own health. It's this short-sighted outlook that must change to enhance operator performance.

Our previous articles on this topic have focused on everything from prioritized HMI color schemes to wearable PC devices to help operators improve their situational awareness of their process controls and conditions, and enable them to respond more efficiently and make better decisions more quickly. However, despite concerns about fatigue and some scheduling rules to alleviate it, there didn't appear to be much emphasis on addressing operators' overall health issues as a way to improve performance and production.

The only nod to operator health that I recall in our past coverage was that a few end users had installed small exercise rooms with some aerobic equipment off to the side of their "control room of the future." While this was a potentially useful beginning, it doesn't go far enough in fostering operator health.

You know what's coming next. Eat more fruits and vegetables, and way less fat, salt, sugar and other carbohydrates. Walk more and sit around all day a lot less. As my physician, Dr. Jeffery Grabenstein, asked me 25 years ago, "You know what you need to do, right?" I told him that I did and then promptly didn't do it.

Of course, some health problems are unavoidable, but most of the worst are simple, if not easy, to solve. Maybe it will help process control engineers to know they can help their applications and plants by helping themselves. Personally, I'm going to check those hoses and try to avoid another painful reminder.

About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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