Who’s Prepared?

I have been in the industrial refrigeration industry for, well, a long time. Over the decades LESSON I have seen many changes in technology and regulations. However, one thing that in more recent years really stands out is who is prepared to take over a position?

The industrial refrigeration field has been a fairly secure occupation for operators, engineers, supervisors and managers. Anyone interested in working in this field can often find a position relatively quickly, and with continued effort and learning have a good life time occupation. This is still true, but where are the new people?

Over the last few years, I have noticed a lack of personnel to fill both operational and maintenance positions, and even more so in compliance positions. You may have noticed this same thing. Here are just a few examples I have seen:

  • A longtime Chief engineer at a seafood processing facility had mentioned to me on several occasions that he was thinking about retiring. He had two primary responsibilities. One, the operation and maintenance of the refrigeration system, and two, compliance with PSM Standard and RM Program. He made an effort to find someone to start working in the refrigeration department, but had limited success. People were hired, but after a few months they moved on. Eventually, a knowledgeable and qualified person working at a similar facility was hired and took over the refrigeration department. The person was a good fit for operation and maintenance of the refrigeration system, however for the compliance programs about all he could do was spell “PSM”. The new Chief had a steep learning curve to understand requirements and how much effort was needed for PSM Standard and RM Program. A big void was left when the original Chief left, and the company was in a less than desirable position in meeting their compliance requirements. 
  • The HR/Compliance Manager at a fairly large refrigerated storage facility had many responsibilities. One of those was responsibility for the PSM Standard and RM Program. He had been doing this for about four years. One of the other facility managers had on numerous occasions sat in on meetings for audits, hazard analysis, SOP reviews, etc. This other manager called me recently asking about their Emergency Action Plan (EAP), and I told him the information I had was several years out of date, but the HR person would have the most current EAP. The manager said the HR person had recently left the company, and he was now tasked with overseeing the PSM Standard and RM Program. Although familiar with portions of the programs he had no in-depth knowledge and in many cases didn’t understand what was required. I met with him to try and bring him up to speed with the programs, only to find that what we both thought had been done by the previous HR person in record keeping was sadly lacking. There was a lot of learning and work to be done. 
  • A very knowledgeable and hardworking refrigeration technician was employed by a refrigeration contractor. One of the technician’s prime customers was a large cold storage company, which had multiple large facilities within about a 100 miles radius. The technician enjoyed what he did and worked closely with the customer for many years, and was the cold storage companies’ only (notice I said “only”) refrigeration person. After years of hard work, long days, and overtime during harvest, the technician finally decided to retire. The company wanted him to continue to work with them, but the technician said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” There was no one prepared to fill the big void left by the technician. 
  • A cold storage facility had four (4) separate systems at one site all over the threshold quantity (10,000 lbs.) of ammonia, and employed a lady responsible for meeting the requirements of the PSM Standard and RM Program. This same person also had the prime responsibility of the company’s food safety program, as well as several other important programs. After several years of trying to keep her head above water, she decided to stop drowning and move on. Over several years she had worked fairly regularly with the head refrigeration operator on the PSM and RM Program, but these OSHA and EPA programs really took a back seat to her other responsibilities, especially food safety. Prior to her leaving the company she met with the refrigeration operator and briefly passed on information (saved in several notebooks) and the location of electronic files for these programs. The Head of Refrigeration felt like he had been thrown into the deep end of a pool, and he had no idea how to swim. 
  • Another refrigerated facility with several independent systems needed additional help for operation of the refrigeration systems. They didn’t have anyone within the company that wanted to, or even could, fill the position. They ended up hiring a person who was very dedicated and attentive to record keeping to monitor, and to a limited extent, operate the refrigeration systems. One of this persons tasks was logging of key system operational parameters, such as suction and discharge pressure, oil pressure, amps, temperatures, etc. After several weeks one of the reciprocating compressors in one of the systems had a major failure, requiring a complete re-build. After the event an investigation was done to determine, if possible, why the compressors had failed. The answer was found in the logged data. The new refrigeration person had dutifully and accurately recorded key parameters, one of which was oil pressure for the failed compressor. The record showed oil pressure readings of 35 psig, then 34 psig, then 33 psig, and so on over many days of time. A steady decline in oil pressure until failure. The person was doing what they were told in recording the information, but didn’t have a clue to what it meant. 

The above are just some examples. I am sure many of you have experienced or seen similar things happen. As in the above examples, there was either limited preparation or none at all for who would be responsible for operation and maintenance of a system, and/ or working on the requirements of the PSM Standard and RM Program. What can be done?

There is wise council in the saying “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Start training others to take over another’s responsibilities sooner instead of later. For operation and maintenance of a system find good people to start learning industrial refrigeration specific to a facilities system(s). Have those people work with an experienced refrigeration operator who knows a company’s specific refrigeration needs, how equipment should be operated, and be able to identify and correct improper operations long before something bad happens.

Similarly, for the meeting the requirements of the PSM Standard and RM Program at least two (2) persons should be very familiar with all aspects of these programs. Where documents are (both paper and electronic), what the documents are, what should be done, and on what time frame, etc. Another often missed aspect of these programs is how the information to fulfill the programs is organized.

I see in both the industrial refrigeration operation and maintenance field, and in the effort to meet the requirements of the PSM Standard and the RM Program the need to take this “who’s prepared” issue much more serious. There are many job opportunities available. There are resources that can help people learn new skills and further advance their knowledge base. IIAR and RETA both stress education as one of their prime areas of focus (see under the Education tab on iiar.org, or on reta.com). Valuable knowledge can be accessed through these organizational websites, as well as by attending annual conferences and/or area meetings. Being prepared means doing something earlier, not just as you’re walking out or in the door.