An industrial power plant at sunset

Watchstanding Principles: Standing an Active, Thoughtful Watch

When shift changeover happens and the off-going crew leaves, does the oncoming shift have a plan for the shift?  If a procedure is in progress, does every member of the crew know what to expect and, moreover, what to do if they do not get the expected result?  If plant operators are not fully engaged when they accept responsibility for the watch, the plant is operating without the knowledge and understanding of the operator.  The plant is – by definition – operating out of control.

Certainly, the thought of an industrial piece of equipment operating out of control is scary, to say the least, and unacceptable in any circumstance.  It may seem like semantic gymnastics to consider an otherwise smoothly running piece of gear to be out of control, but without a thorough knowledge of the machine and the foresight to understand the machines’ potential responses, you are not controlling the machine – you are watching it operate out of control, albeit smoothly at the moment.

Now, consider a device NOT operating in a static or stable environment: perhaps you are operating a valve or starting a pump.  The system is being placed in a dynamic state, which exponentially increases the likelihood of unexpected results.

Prior to operating the equipment, whether a simple valve or major pump, STOP and THINK about what the expected result should be.  Next, consider what your actions will be if you do not receive the expected result.  These watchstanding principles are the backbone of safe and efficient operations.  For example, when starting a pump, I expect to hear motor noise, flow noise and see discharge pressure increase.  I ask myself, “What if discharge pressure does not increase?”  I am going to return the pump to OFF and check the valve lineup and prime the pump.  How many pumps have been damaged because the plant operator failed to stop the pump while searching for the misaligned component?

In a mea culpa backstory, I once started a pump like I had several times before.  This was a simple pump that moved liquid from one tank to another.  The pump started with good discharge pressure and I went back to chatting with my buddy.  I did not take the time to ensure one tank was lowering and the other was increasing.  The result was a hazardous spill of several hundred gallons, significant cleanup, and having to requalify a watch I had stood for years without incident.

Out of control equipment issues are not isolated to novice or ignorant plant operators.  In my personal example above, the equipment performed appropriately for the way the system was aligned.  The problem was I wasn’t following best watchstanding principles: I did not validate the system response when the pump started.  The equipment was operating out of the control of a highly-experienced operator.

Plant operation cannot be reactionary; you must think ahead of your equipment.  If plant operators continuously have to take action to respond to conditions, the operator is not in control of the plant.  Before operating switches, valves, etc., stop and think about what you expect.  Then, before you execute the action, stop and think about what you will do if you do not get the expected result.  In steady state conditions, choose a piece of gear and think: what would I do right now if X happened?  Train your new hires to say out loud: “I am about to open valve 23.  I expect level in Tank A to rise slowly.  If I do not see level rise slowly, I am going to shut valve 23, notify the Control Room and investigate.”  Practicing these watchstanding principles can save on costly mistakes.