Who's Running Things?

Aug. 8, 2004
Editor's Page: Who Should Run Processes and Why

There's something really bothering me. It should be bothering you. Who’s in charge of your process? The boiler operator in your plant has to be certified. The wastewater treatment operator at your plant’s waste treatment facility has to be licensed. Even the person who comes through looking for rats, mice and cockroaches has to be licensed. There are multiple certifications for the IT people at your plant. But the people who are running your process and your process control system don’t need any licensing, certification, or any special training to be in charge. There’s something wrong with this picture, and I think it is time for a change.

Oh, sure, the vendors of your field instruments, controllers and control system give you manuals and training on how their stuff works. But is that enough to prevent a significant plant upset from turning into a disaster? Somehow, I think not. So why isn’t a license required to run a process control system?

Why are water and wastewater treatment operators licensed? Why are boiler operators certified? Because in the early days of the 20th Century, it became obvious that there was a "clear and present danger to the public" from untrained operators, and licensing and certification were the way to ensure that those people received the proper training and experience. That way, we didn’t have typhus, diphtheria, cholera and exploding boilers. And guess what? It worked.

We haven’t had a major industrial accident in North America in a good long time. We can be thankful for that. We can thank the longtime control professionals who have managed the plants for that. But those professionals are leaving the industry. Some are gone from attrition and layoffs, others have left by retiring. We are losing the large repository of knowledge that has told us not only what the process was controlling, but what the data mean. It is this invaluable knowledge that prevents accident after accident, because seasoned professionals knew what to look for, and understood what was going on. We have safety systems. We have very robust control systems. We have reliable hardware and field instruments. And your plant can still go boom.

And nothing prevents your employer from hiring anybody they want, and relying on that person to do what you have done for years.

ISA led the way in recognizing Control System Engineering as a separate and licensable discipline. IBEW and ISA developed the Certified Control System Technician program, and now ISA is offering certification in many areas of process control. This is great, and many people have worked hard to get this far. That and $3.00 will get you a latte at Starbucks. Many of you have found that getting certified, or licensed as a Control System Engineer hasn’t put any extra money in your pocket, or any extra respect in your HR file.

It’s time we, as professionals, did something about this before something really bad happens. ISA changed its rules against lobbying a few years ago. Now’s the time for ISA to start lobbying hard for control system operator licensing. If you are an ISA member, make your voice heard. If you aren’t, join so you can. And what can we do on our own? Plenty. This is an election year. Write your congressperson. Write your state legislator. Write the Department of Homeland Security. Write somebody and make some noise. Let’s try to get something done before the disaster that is coming happens.

The saddest words I can think of are, "I told you so."

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