The Importance of Operator Training

The importance of operator training is one area of a water treatment program that is at times overlooked. Why is that? Well, for one thing it requires a time investment on the part of the water treatment service rep and there is usually no direct compensation for this additional training.

Keep in mind that the plant operator is usually interested in understanding why he/she is treating water in the first place. In addition, most of them are usually concerned about the safe handling of chemicals as well as operation of machinery and controls in general. More importantly, they want to know what to do in an emergency situation.

Here are some real life examples of what happens when operators make mistakes because of lack of training.

  1. An operator once plugged a sulfuric acid pump into a hot outlet rather than into the on/off outlet of the pH controller. The result was a gross overfeed of acid which caused free mineral acid (pH < 4.3) to form in the cooling tower water which supplied two large chillers. Fortunately, the day shift operator discovered the problem the next morning. The root cause of this problem was lack of training as well as improper labeling of the electrical receptacles.
  2. A packing plant was using a neutralizing amine (DEAE) in a plant where there was direct steam contact with the meat products. Limits for DEAE are 15 ppm in FDA regulated plants. For some reason, the operator plugged the DEAE pump into a hot outlet rather than in the relay that metered in the chemical at a controlled rate. Approximately 85 ppm of DEAE was fed based on the amount of chemical that was added over a 24 hour period. This caused a real dilemma for the plant manager who did not know if it was safe to approve the meat for shipment. I never found out what he decided to do but I must say I was reluctant to purchase their bacon for awhile.
  3. An air separation plant was using an orthophosphate based corrosion inhibitor and a HACH DR-890 for measuring treatment levels in the cooling tower water. Distilled water was used for diluting the tower water samples. The lead operator (who should have known better) was approached by the shift operator and notified that he had just used the remaining distilled water and a new supply should be ordered. Rather than writing a requisition, he simply went to the cooling tower water sample point, and filled the distilled water bottle! He never told anyone he did this. When I visited the plant, the operator wanted to know why my PO4 reading was half of what his reading showed. We were doing a 1:1 dilution of tower to distilled water. I decided to test their ‘distilled’ water and found it to contain 8 ppm orthophosphate. The lead operator was embarrassed and I was even more embarrassed for assuming that he new better than to do this.

There is an old saying in the water treatment business that “An operator can make or break your treatment program.” I would like to modify that saying to read , “An untrained operator can and will eventually break your treatment program.”

Please take whatever time is necessary to properly train the operating personnel at your customer plants. Blaming an operator for their mistake is really a reflection on their lack of training which you as a rep are responsible for providing. Do NOT allow another operator to train a new operator for you. He may tell him something that is wrong or misleading. Instead, commit to having at least one in-house training program per year for ALL of the operators. During this time you may want to pass out updated training manuals.

The responsibility for keeping an account happy starts with everyone being on the same page. This can only come through knowledge and understanding by all personnel that are involved in the implementation of your treatment programs.

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