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What Role Should Supervisors Play During Plant Upsets?


Across the chemical processing industry, there is a debate on what role supervisors should play during plant upsets and abnormal situations. As plant staffing has been reduced over the last few years, the debate has increased as supervisors are taking on greater upset response responsibilities. At many plants, operators, supervisors, and other management have begun to question the supervisor’s upset response role and how the intended role fits into PSM requirements.

One reoccurring issue is what training do supervisors need to satisfy the PSM requirements (OSHA 29 CFR 1910.119). The ruling reads: “Each employee presently involved in operating a process, and each employee before being involved in operating a newly assigned process, shall be trained in an overview of the process and in the operating procedures. The training shall include emphasis on the specific safety and health hazards, emergency operations including shutdown, and safe work practices applicable to the employee’s job”.

The wording of the ruling is ambiguous; who knows what the statement “Each employee presently involved in operating a process” really means? One interpretation is that since supervisors do not normally have reoccurring hands-on operational responsibilities, the PSM requirements do not include supervisors. If this interpretation is correct, it is the company’s prerogative to set the upset response training requirements for their supervisors.

Training personnel for tasks they do not have to perform is a waste of resources and the trainee’s time. Beville does believe that it is a good operating practice to train supervisors on those tasks they may be called upon to perform during plant upsets. The question is, what are those tasks?

Based upon Beville’s experience, supervisors at plants have been said to perform the following tasks during upsets (the list is in no particular order):

  •  Crowd Control - One of the lessons learned from the accident at Three Mile Island was the need to control the flow of unessential personnel into the control room during a major upset.
  • Answer and Interpret Alarms - Board operators report that one of the most important functions of assistance is to answer and interpret alarms and pass along only those that are consequential.
  • Call Out for Assistance - Operators often find themselves too caught up in activity to make call-outs for assistance. Supervisors are often the resource that makes the call-outs.
  • Guidelines and Objectives - Recognition of the class of a problem and the general objective to mitigate its impact is a task often done by supervisors that enables the operator to be more proactive and less caught up in the details of the problem. For example, on one FCC process unit a key task for the supervisor was to identify when to keep catalyst hot and circulating and when to shift objectives due to the catalyst cooling.
  • Situational Awareness (SA) - Maintaining the “big picture”, or situational awareness, during upset response is essential to successfully handling an upset. Supervisors help maintain SA by identifying and confirming emerging patterns of events as the scenarios unfold and choosing appropriate responses.
  • Coordinate with Tank Farm or Other Plants - Diversion of off-spec product to slop, likely to occur in an upset, needs to be done in a timely manner. Supervisors are often the person calling for the diversion to off-spec.
  • Realign Crew - Due to differing levels of training and experience it may be necessary to reassign personnel to different tasks. A supervisor with the knowledge of personnel capabilities and upset demands can dynamically alter the job assignments to match demands with abilities.
  • Cross Check Procedures - A function of supervisors is to ensure compliance with operating practices and procedures. Supervisors help identify and account for deviations from operating practices and procedures.
  • Assist with Abnormalities - There is a general class of tasks that do not directly involve the process equipment but require physical effort. These include blockading roadways, putting fire monitors on fires/leaks, being a fresh air watch person, directing a fire team, etc.

In addition to these items there may be others that management may wish supervisors to perform. It is not unreasonable to expect supervisors to help turn high effort valves under the direction of operators. Ultimately, it is up to management to decide the training their supervisors need for upset response.

With the trend across the chemical processing industry of reducing the number of supervisors, management must critically evaluate the tasks their supervisors are performing. If supervisors are removed or asked to accept greater responsibilities, then management must ensure the consequential tasks the supervisors were performing are still performed by somebody or something (automation).

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For further information, visit the links below.

| Workload/Staffing Analysis Overview | Steady State Workload Staffing Analysis | Steady State Job Samples | Upset Response Staffing Analysis | Overtime Calculator -Excel download |


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