A swiftly growing fire erupts from a piece of malfunctioning equipment at a plant that has a reputation for reliable operations and very few workplace accidents. On this day, however, black smoke quickly begins to billow from the plant as employees scatter—some to get fire extinguishers and some to evacuate guests unaware of the danger that is unfolding.
This fire, which occurred on a seemingly normal day for plant operations, wreaked havoc on plant equipment and its personnel. It caused the entire plant to shut down and cost thousands of dollars of revenue because of one malfunctioning product that caused a piece of equipment to catch fire. But who among us is prepared to handle something like this? Such incidents show why everyone who works with plants needs to have good training programs in place for employees; those training programs should provide a solid working knowledge of what might happen to the valves and related equipment in any scenario. Distributors can be one of the resources to help provide that training.
In the worst of situations, a plant can experience loss of life from a plant accident. However, though milder in consequence, we also need to prepare for unscheduled facility shutdowns. Plants face lawsuits, fines and public perception issues when any malfunction or operational error occurs, especially if it leads to workplace injury.
Having plant personnel properly trained in valve components and their functions, valve maintenance and valve integrity can greatly reduce the chances of dire consequences.
As plants work to update and maintain their facilities and operations, they are faced with the challenge of having access to adequate training resources to ensure that plant personnel are well-equipped to choose and maintain valves.
But the landscape of today’s plant workforce coupled with evolving valve specifications create new challenges in ensuring that plant personnel is well-equipped to perform preventative valve maintenance and make well-informed purchasing decisions.
These challenges include:
Retiring workforce: According to data from the Pew Research Center, 10,000 baby boomers will reach age 65 (the typical age for retirement) every day through 2029.
A 2012 survey conducted by the Society of Human Resources and AARP found that, despite the data supporting the increase in this large, aging population, many U.S. organizations are mostly unprepared for the “brain drain and skills void” these experienced, retiring workers will leave.
Fewer employees: Plants are now automating many of their processes with new technology and software. Automation allows plants to run more efficiently and keep operating costs in-line with global competition. However, it also means plants can operate with fewer employees. Maintenance and engineering departments have fewer human resources, restricting the number of people available to troubleshoot valve issues and train new associates on valve procedures.
Complicated selection process: Evaluating valve criteria can be a complicated and confusing process. However, it is necessary to choose the right valve for each application and to understand how to properly maintain that valve during operations.
A sample of the valve criteria that must be considered includes:
- Valve size: Control valves should be sized based on desired flow rates, not pipeline size. Often control valves are one size smaller than the pipeline to provide optimal control. Most isolation valves, such as a gate, ball, butterfly or plug, will match the pipeline size.
- Pressure and temperature: Valves are designed to meet certain pressure and temperature ratings. Selecting the proper valve materials of construction (body, seat, packing, plug/disc/ball, gaskets) for each application is important to ensure the valve will withstand the design pressures and temperatures.
- Actuation method: Understanding the method by which a valve mechanism moves (handle, gear operator, pneumatic, electric or hydraulic) is a vital component in ensuring that valves are operated safely and properly. For instance, small manual valves typically come with a handle to open and close the valve. As valve sizes and pressures increase, customers should opt for gear operators for ease in operating valves.
- Flow rate: Each valve manufacturer will provide flow rates (CV) for specific products. For example, control valves are commonly sized to control the amount of flow based on various conditions (normal, minimum and maximum). Over-sizing control valves can lead to cavitation, valve damage and costly repairs.
- Media: Selecting the proper compatible materials of construction for the media running through the valve is a key component when making valve purchasing decisions. As an example, a high-performance butterfly valve’s body, disc, stem, seat and packing will all need to be compatible with the media. One wrong determination can lead to valve failure and potential safety hazards. In some cases, multiple materials will work with the media, and cost must be considered in the evaluation process. Many manufacturers provide corrosion guides to select valve component materials for specific applications.
- End connection: End connections (flanged, threaded, socket weld and butt weld) are designed to match the pipe connections. For example, many manufacturers have specific instructions for welding socket or butt weld valves to minimize the potential for damage to the valve seats. Overheating the welds at high temperatures could damage soft goods within valve designs and cause premature valve failure.
- Delivery requirements: Some valves are readily available while others have long lead times. Process valves are made to order based upon many different applications. Distributors will attempt to stock commonly used products to reduce lead times for their customers and keep plants operating.
Training programs can be costly, so some plants turn to the supply chain to mitigate those costs and provide technical expertise. A few cost-effective ways for plants to provide valuable training to their employees while keeping costs down include using:
- Experienced employees: Plants can use their retiring workforce to help fill the knowledge gap before those employees completely exit the workforce. Some ways baby boomers can be used to ensure their experience is not completely lost include: 1) Increasing training and cross-training with newer employees and developing a succession plan for younger workers who will fill key operation roles; 2) Hiring retired employees as consultants or temporary workers; and 3) Offering flexible work arrangements and part-time positions to keep baby boomer employees on the job longer.
- Valve Manufacturers Association of America (VMA): VMA offers several training resources available to plant associates including: 1) The Valve Basics course: A three-day valve, actuator and control education program that includes a “Valve Petting Zoo” to provide hands-on experience with products covered during the course; 2) Valve Basics Online Training: An online training course offered to those who are unable to attend live seminars; and 3) VALVE Magazine and VALVEmagazine.com, which include a wealth of information from past articles and Web content contributed by end users, specifiers, distributors, manufacturers and valve repair and service firms.
- Distributor on- or off-site training: Distributors often offer on- or off-site training for plant personnel to demonstrate valve technology and provide technical expertise. Distributors act as a liaison between a plant and a manufacturer, and they are able to request a manufacturer’s support and assistance for specific applications. Plants should use distributors to stay current on products and new technologies.
- Manufacturer plant training and online resources: In the past, manufacturers provided product catalogues with information regarding their products, specification adherence, operating, installation and maintenance instructions. Over the years, those resources have moved online so that manufacturers can make timely updates when there are product changes. Plant operators have access to a variety of online training resources provided by manufacturers to keep their personnel up to date on understanding, purchasing and maintaining valves in this new environment.
Visiting a manufacturer’s website is often the most direct way to access valve specifications and operating instructions. Some manufacturers now demonstrate how their valves operate on their websites and how to maintain and repair products through online videos. Plants also can now find video operational instructions on manufacturer websites and online video platforms such as YouTube to view product demonstrations and repair techniques.
Manufacturers also still visit plants to demonstrate products or have operators visit their facilities for training.
The make-up of the plant workforce continues to change and valve technology continues to evolve. Plants cannot rely solely on experienced employees to train new hires on valve selection, maintenance and repair. Having a comprehensive training program in place and using existing resources, including distributors, suppliers and manufacturers, will help reduce plant downtime and workforce injuries.