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In virtually every modern process plant, we will always find operating, maintenance, and reliability/technical job functions. The most profitable of these facilities have managed to train their personnel. They also will have implemented organizational and other procedural routines that ensure the three job functions consistently respect and embrace cooperation, communication, and mutual consideration.

Recent plant experience shows that the operator’s role in achieving equipment reliability can be explained in a one-day training course. Several refineries and chemical plants have been able to validate the importance of such training. Here are concepts that pacesetter facilities would want to emphasize in training their operators.

No Reliability Without Operator
Just as the most well-designed and best-maintained car will fail in the hands of a thoughtless or inexperienced driver, the best and most reliable machine will not perform optimally if the operator lacks training, care, or motivation. In our automobiles we accept being responsible for viewing the dashboard instruments. Similarly, the operator in a modern process plant must accept equipment surveillance as his primary responsibility.

The purpose of surveillance is to spot deviations from normal operation. These deviations are then reported to maintenance or reliability personnel to determine their significance and to schedule and implement necessary remedial action. It is extremely important to realize that while some refineries in the United States have centrifugal pumps with an MTBF (mean-time-between-failures) of nine years, others report an MTBF of less than three years. Each group includes old and new facilities, some unionized and some non-union. Moreover, each group purchases pumps from the same manufacturers. A good training program pinpoints the many small, and generally overlooked reasons for drastically different reliability performance of essentially identical pumps.

“Best Practices” Surveillance And Other Misunderstandings Cleared Up

Each has its place, but a pacesetter “best practices” plant will carefully select and explain when, why and where continuous electronic surveillance makes economic sense, and where only the operator’s eyes and ears will do the best job. Process plants would do well in thoroughly explaining:

    • Conditions that could cause bearings to be deprived of lubrication, even though their
      constant-level lubricators are full of oil (Ref. 1).
    • Operating conditions where plenty of cooling water is applied, but bearings still fail
      as a result of overheating.
    • Situations where compressor suction drums are free of liquid, but liquid is found
      in the compressor and causes serious damage.
    • Unacceptable flow conditions that will drastically reduce pump life (Ref. 2).
    • Pump switch-over and warm-up issues that have reliability impact.

And while those types of situations can often be remedied by informed operators, other misunderstandings are best addressed by informed engineers and managers.

Misunderstandings Involving Engineering And Specifications

Facilities subscribing to the logical premise that operations, maintenance, and reliability/technical groups must cooperate will encourage their engineers to participate in operator-training sessions. Having all these plant functions present when engineering and specification issues are discussed will save finger pointing in the future. Overlapping job functions benefit from exchanging information that represents valuable learning experiences. In one such day-long meeting, attendees were apprised of and learned:

    • Why/how vented bearing housings are no longer used by best-in-class (BiC) companies.
    • Why/how lubrication by oil rings often has serious shortcomings.
    • Why/how oil-mist lube is deemed successful at some locations and considered to be of 
      little value elsewhere (Ref.1).
    • Why/how mechanical modifications that can greatly extend bearing life.
    • Why/how, in certain easily definable pumping services, mechanical seals don’t require
      external flush fluids.
    • Why/how instances where catastrophic failure and loss of life were reported because of 
      water in lube oil.

Where Only A Competent Operator Can Avoid Machinery Failure

There are many areas where only a well-informed, competent, and conscientious operator can avoid equipment failures. In each of these areas, success is linked to “operator buy-in.” In other words, things are more likely to be done in a timely and procedurally correct fashion if the operator understands not only how, but also why a reliability-focused plant engages in:

    • Slow rolling (warm-up) of turbines.
    • Measures that prevent water slugging of turbines.
    • Understanding contaminated lube oil: How bad is bad?
    • Exercising steam turbine trip/throttle (T/T) valves.

A well-trained work force is essential to safety and reliability performance. Process plants, utilities, and other facilities can reverse unfavorable trends by paying attention to training topics that limit exposure to philosophies, and by emphasizing the tangible details to which operators and mechanical work force members can respond.

Reliability professionals can be trained to become trainers. All they will have to do is read available books and highlight the many instances where these books point to recognized Best Practices that differ from the practices at their own sites. Adopting and implementing Best Practices is a prerequisite to joining the top Best-in-Class performers.TRR




1. Bloch, H.P., Optimized Equipment Lubrication: Conventional Lube, Oil Mist Technology and Full Standstill Protection, (scheduled for release Dec. 2021), DeGruyter, Berlin/Germany, ISBN 978-3-11-074934-2.

2. Perez, Robert X. and Bloch, H.P., Pump Wisdom: Life Extension of Pumps, Problem Solving for Operators & Specialists, 2nd Ed., (2012) John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ, ISBN 978-1-11-974824-3.



Editor’s Note: Click Here To Download A Full List Of Heinz Bloch’s 24 Books



Heinz Bloch’s long professional career included assignments as Exxon Chemical’s Regional Machinery Specialist for the United States. A recognized subject-matter-expert on plant equipment and failure avoidance, he is the author of numerous books and articles, and continues to present at technical conferences around the world. Bloch holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in Mechanical Engineering and is an ASME Life Fellow. These days, he’s based near Houston, TX. 



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