How (and why) to train operators on maintenance

Give your first line of defense against equipment failures the tools they need to keep equipment up and running.

By Michael Blanchard, Life Cycle Engineering

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Although some maintenance activities require formal classroom training, many routine tasks can be taught to equipment operators internally using manufacturers’ instruction manuals and in-house subject-matter experts. Maintenance craftspeople are often an underutilized resource for cross-training operators, and on-the-job (or OTJ) training is the best knowledge-transfer method.

Operator maintenance activities make use of the knowledge and skills of the people who work with the equipment routinely and give operators a vested interest in equipment reliability. Operator care tasks also free up maintenance craftspeople for more proactive maintenance (i.e., preventive and predictive maintenance).

However, before they can delve into more specialized tasks, operators need to be trained to clean and inspect equipment and perform basic maintenance tasks such as tightening fasteners. They also need to know when to reach out for help should the task appear beyond their capabilities. Involving operators and maintenance craftspeople in developing an asset management strategy can help an organization identify opportunities for training operators to perform maintenance.

Front-line reliability

Operators are closest to the process equipment and know when it’s running in a stable mode. Because they are on the front line, they are best positioned to identify and treat hazards. In demonstrating cleaning tasks, maintenance craftspeople teach operators how to inspect their equipment. Operator-led inspections are meant to identify symptoms of equipment failure with enough advanced warning that a maintenance technician can effectively troubleshoot the problem and take appropriate action. The criteria on the inspection sheets, or procedures, help the operator identify failure modes early enough to allow them to resolve problems themselves or plan and schedule corrective actions for more-qualified maintenance craftspeople to perform before equipment failure affects the value stream.

The earlier the operator can detect symptoms – whether using online monitoring tools or by calling upon his or her senses of sight, hearing, smell, and touch – the more time the organization has to plan and execute a repair. In some instances, simple actions can resolve the cause of distress. As shown in the flow chart below, operator inspections add a layer of protection against equipment failure, but these skills need to be developed. Maintenance craftspeople are the most appropriate personnel to train operators to perform maintenance tasks.

Hazard elimination and mitigation

Maintenance craftspeople, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), and reliability engineering (RE) personnel all can be involved in training operators to identify adverse equipment conditions and symptoms of distress. This can be done through equipment cleaning and inspection and reinforced with single-point lessons (or SPLs). Again, operators are in the optimum position to respond to early equipment warning signs, but they need to know what to look for and how to respond. They need to acquire basic maintenance skills to return equipment to an operable condition or contain the effects of failure. Reliability near-misses and resolution actions should be shared at team and communication meetings.

Root-cause analysis

Reliability engineers should train operators to collect critical evidence when equipment fails and to perform simple “5 whys” analyses for daily problem-solving. When cleaning equipment, operators are also inspecting it and looking for sources of contamination, debris, and leaks. Maintenance craftspeople can help develop the troubleshooting abilities of operators to identify the source of specific contamination and leaks. Root-cause analysis (RCA) is fundamental to the cooperative efforts to achieve world-class reliability, and training is needed on several fronts.
minimum maintenance skills for operators

Operators should be skilled in basic maintenance activities because the operator is the first line of defense in keeping a machine online. If the operator understands the maintenance required for an asset, he or she will understand the value of that asset’s performance and what to expect out of it. Naturally, those best suited to train operators for front-line reliability activities are maintenance craftspeople who have the most experience working on that particular asset.

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  • So basic and so powerful. Still many plants I have been to struggle to implement it.


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