Training: An Investment That Pays Big Dividends
Ammonia refrigeration training is a wise investment. Why? Because it adds up to three things: a safe work environment, an efficient and productive process, and longer equipment life. A safe work environment means that refrigeration operators are more productive because there is no lost time caused by preventable accidents. A well-run refrigeration system results in lower energy costs and increased throughput, both of which lower product costs. And well-maintained equipment operates longer, so the capital costs for premature equipment replacement are lower. Simply put, well-trained ammonia refrigeration operators are good for the bottom line of any company.
Many companies that use ammonia as a refrigerant are committed to training their operators. Unfortunately, that's not universal. I can't understand why some companies still don't provide adequate training for their people. Facilities that don't invest in their people, or in keeping their systems in top-notch condition, seem to be the ones that are most likely to have accidental ammonia releases. Those releases give an otherwise responsible industry an undeserved black eye because they produce concern among government authorities and the public. The result often is regulations that, while well inten tioned, are often counterproductive.
I hear about regulations affecting our industry all the time. People complain about how the regulations -- and those who enforce them -- are not realistic. That may be so, but we need to constantly educate governme nt and code officials about our industry so they don't do things that are unnecessary. Beyond that, the best solution is for everyone in this industry to do the right thing by training their employees and maintaining their systems.
A well-trained operator should know how a refrigeration system works, how the system in their plant functions, how to operate their equipment in the most efficient mode, and how to operate their system safely in accordance with written operating procedures. In addition, an operator should understand the OSHA and EPA regulations that apply to his or her system. So, how does an owner or facility manager ensure that the staff is well trained?
Any good training program offered in our industry should stress safety, system k nowledge and energy conservation. Besides understanding how each component in a refrigeration system works and how they interact, operators must know what happens in the system when it is operating. Here are a few examples. A well-trained operator needs to know what happens when an oil drain valve is opened more than it should be and why. Operators who are expected to do heavy maintenance work such as replacing piping should be able to identify acceptable refrigeration grades of carbon steel pipe. Anyone who does welding on a refrigeration system should always use qualified welding procedures and be certified against those procedures to meet the ASME refrigeration piping code. Operators should know how to maintain ammonia detectors and machinery room vent ilation systems. And, everyone at a facility needs to know what needs to be done, or not done, in case of an ammonia release.
Without question, there is a lot for operators to learn. But, in my opinion, it's just plain foolish to operate an ammonia r efrigeration system without well-trained operators -- especially when an abundance of quality training opportunities exist. I'll quickly review what's available in our industry.
Training ResourcesHistorically, ammonia refrigeration training has been done in-house, follo wing a kind of apprenticeship. Old hands would teach new young operators the ins and outs of running the system. Some of that still goes on today, but it's not as common as it once was. More importantly, government regulations like PSM and RMP require doc umentation of a more formal training procedure for operators of larger systems. There are numerous training resources available in our industry, including the materials developed by IIAR and RETA. Many ammonia refrigeration contractors offer training prog rams, and most major equipment manufacturers provide free training on their products. There are some good community college programs on industrial refrigeration available and a number of private training companies as well.
A good source of training ma terial is the International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration (IIAR). Pretty much everything IIAR produces has educational value. The bulletins they issue are instructional and generally are accepted as good industry practice. The Process Safety Manageme nt and Risk Management Guidelines developed by IIAR for the industry provide guidance on complying with these two important federal regulations. Much of the material a plant produces for a PSM/RMP program -- operating procedures, P&ID drawings, etc. -- is a useful resource for training. The IIAR Ammonia Refrigeration Education and Training Program is a library of videotapes and workbooks that provides basic instruction on how a refrigeration system operates and explains system components, safety issues such as emergency response, personal protective equipment and oil draining. This program is an excellent foundation on which to build more advanced training.
Another good source of training material is the Refrigerating Engineers and Technicians Associ-ation (RETA). Training and education of operators is its core mission. For years, members of local chapters have met after business hours in their employers' cafeterias to work through the RETA workbooks and teach each other. The RETA course books are als o usable as a self-study program. They cover many aspects of industrial refrigeration, including electrical.
A number of good community college programs are offered around the country. For those companies who can send an operator away to attend a sch ool, Garden City Community College, Garden City, Kan., offers comprehensive one-week programs. It is the model for several other community college programs getting started in other regions around the country, including the Northwest, West, South-west, South and Northeast. These schools are using a lot of the RETA and IIAR material as part of the coursework they offer. (I'm glad to see all of this interest in training ammonia operators from community colleges around the country. But, even though there are plenty of operators who need training, I am concerned about the ability of these schools to sustain the programs they offer. But that's a topic for another column.)
Distance learning is one of the new buzzwords among educators. That's another phrase f or "online training on the Internet." A few companies have taken the plunge and offer this kind of training. Right now, it's limited by the ability of technology to deliver the material in a visually pleasant fashion that also is convenient. But, it won't be long before a lot more of this kind of training is available.
On another topic, I have been at this now over a year and I'd like to know what you think. Previous columns are available for review by IIAR members at www.iiar.org. You can send me your comments and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll try to address them in future columns.