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Selecting Your Next Control Board Operator

Console Operator

My blog today will focus on the human-factor side of operating a refinery, specifically selecting your next control board operator.

Who really cares about selection?

How hard could it be?

What could possibly go wrong?

Much like an air traffic controller, a control operator needs to be able to do things right the first time with no mistakes.

Throughout this blog, you will learn what makes the control operator job unique, the benefits of a good selection system, what most companies are doing, and the latest scientific findings. In other words, why not everyone is cut out for these jobs, what selection techniques are effective, and which techniques you should avoid.

During this blog, I will be using the terms control operator, board operator, and console operator interchangeably.

What Makes the Control Operator Job Unique

A control operator at a modern plant is expected to be awake, alert, and ready to take decisive action at a moment’s notice.  A good control operator must be able to switch back and forth between multiple screens and multi-task: visualizing the plant and equipment while effectively communicating to field personnel.  Often an operator is required to gain work experience in several field job positions prior to moving to the console.

Because the job is so complex, it often takes 6-12 months or more to learn the job and become competent enough to work the job solo.  The training program can be rigorous.  The control operator needs to be highly trainable and able to learn.

It is not uncommon for the control operator to have to deal with a lot of interruptions throughout a shift.  A good operator can sort out the important information from the irrelevant information and remain focused in the face of distractions.

The control operator needs to be able to identify problems early, anticipate potential problems, and take action to correct them before they escalate.  We all know that if not properly addressed, issues can escalate into tragedies – including unplanned shutdowns, loss of property, and even loss of life.

Finally, the job can be stressful.  The control operator must be able to remain calm and exercise self-control when confronted with process problems.  Most control operators work rotating shifts, and shift work can add to stress. There is a lot of responsibility placed on this one individual.

The Benefits of a Good Selection System

There are big payoffs to a good selection system for these jobs –

(1) highly competent operators,

(2) less training time,

(3) less training attrition,

(4) fewer incidents,

(5) more efficient operation.

Let’s take a closer look at some of these benefits:

Less training time.   Our customers typically are able to reduce training time by at least 20% simply by implementing a good selection system.

Less training attrition.  Many of our customers routinely experienced training attrition of nearly 50% until they started using a good selection system.

Reducing incidents and improving the safety and efficiency of your operation. The day-to-day performance of the console operator is critical to ensuring incident-free operation. It is estimated by the Abnormal Situations Management Consortium (ASM) that U.S. processing plants lose over $20 billion a year from abnormal situations.  Analyses indicate that $8 billion (40%) is related to human factors.  What would be the cost savings of reducing your process upsets by 40%?


What Most Companies Are Doing

Everyone without exception uses a job application and interview.  Job applications are commonly done on-line instead of in person.  Interviews can be one-on-one, phone, or panel interviews, sometimes a combination.  For example, there may first be a 30 minute phone interview and then if you are chosen to go on to the next round there is a 4 person panel interview.  Finally, Human Resources will typically conduct a background check and drug screen prior to extending a job offer.

Some companies use a series of pre-employment tests.  They can be written or online.   The most common are a mechanical aptitude test and a basic math test.

It is becoming more and more common for companies to use job simulations or simulation-based testing as far as selection.  Read on to learn why job simulations are so important.

The Latest Scientific Findings

Trainers often tell us they can tell right away early in the training who is going to be good at the control operator job.  When we ask them what sets these people apart, they tell us that they are able to “see the big picture” and “they don’t have tunnel vision” and “they are able to understand cause and effect”.

Well, the science proves that these trainers are spot on.

Our company has been studying this job for over twenty years.  We have performed dozens of job analysis studies at a wide variety of U.S. and International companies in Refining, Chemical, Pipeline (both gas and liquids), Oil and Gas Production (both onshore and offshore), and Utilities (both distribution and generation).

Our studies have documented the key abilities for these jobs.  All of these abilities are cognitive abilities, meaning mental abilities.  These people are mental athletes in terms of the range of abilities that they need to have.  Below are the top cognitive abilities from our latest scientific findings –

Selective Attention – focusing during busy and slow periods

Problem Sensitivity – determining when something is likely to go wrong

Time Sharing – shifting between several things that need attention

Deductive Reasoning – figuring out the cause of a problem

Resistance to Premature Judgment – avoiding “over-operating” the board

Visualization – forming a mental image of the plant; “seeing the big picture”

Speed of Closure – making sense out of large amounts of information quickly

In addition to cognitive abilities, our studies have shown that a number of general competencies are important, too.  For many of these jobs, dependability and teamwork is ranked high (i.e., showing up to work on time, someone you can count on). Communication abilities and interpersonal abilities are also important.

What You Should Be Doing For Selection


A good selection system will assess cognitive abilities as well as general competencies.

Cognitive testing should be part of any control operator selection system and is probably your single best predictor of job performance. There are written tests available, but simulation-based testing is best. Simulation based tests, such as COBRA, assess those key cognitive abilities that are difficult to measure any other way.

For general competencies, it is important to use a structured interview.  A structured interview has a list of pre-written questions you want to ask all applicants and a standard approach for scoring those answers and coming up with a final score. You should ask the same, open-ended questions of each applicant and ask “what did you do” and “what would you do”.

To summarize, simulation-based testing combined with structured interviews works best.

In Closing

The modern day control operator job is very complex and the demands on the operator are growing.  It takes many months for an operator to learn this job.  On top of this, there can be an aging workforce as well as aging equipment.  An aging workforce means more people retiring and less experienced people are replacing them.  Aging equipment, as we all know, requires more attention.

The complex applications that call for human attention are multiplying, raising the bar on operator candidate minimum capabilities requirements. Companies should look for those who are able to concentrate over long periods of time, focus in the face of distractions, multi-task, quickly detect anomalies, remain calm and focused in emergencies, and are proficient at reasoning and problem solving.  You want people who truly understand cause and effect and how the plant works. You also need candidates who are dependable, good team players, exhibit good communication skills and are comfortable working rotating shifts. A good selection process will assess all of these. What works best is a simulation-based test such as COBRA (for cognitive abilities) followed by a structured interview (for general competencies).

Your company is the sum of its parts.

It’s made of people, and better people create a better company.

One response to “Selecting Your Next Control Board Operator”

  1. Becky Peterson says:

    Interested in more information? Jolene will be facilitating a Workgroup on Control Board Operator Selection at RefComm Rio. Join us!

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