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I hope this does not sound like advertising, but I also hope you do not forget the small engineering companies and organisations that have worked with you in the past.

During the lockdown I have been blessed so far. I have been remarkably busy with my part time commitments to the university, and I have had two small consulting activities to fill in the gaps. Incredibly lucky for me.

One of them was quite interesting and is the basis for this blog. A small consulting company contacted me asking for some assistance. Seems one of their clients had a hydraulic problem with the manifolds that distribute water to a cooling tower. The header (a complex piece of fibreglass piping) had broken in a storm, and my contact was asked to provide some support while the replacement was rebuilt.

My contact and I took the opportunity to diagnose the root cause of the maldistribution and working with the client (getting both old and anecdotal data) we developed some scenarios to explain the maldistribution. Simple calculations were performed and refined, and a short list of possible causes was developed and presented to the client. After discussions with the client on our findings, there was enough there to justify going forward with one of our recommendations. While the details are confidential, we developed a quite simple path forward that centred on a simple piping modification. The client was able to restart with the new manifold, and reports are better than favourable (SUCCESS!!!).

In looking back over my consulting career, most of my non-training work has been small studies or niche problems. And many of them have not been local – they have been based on my international network. And outside of being a “gun for hire” for a large project, this tends to be the main purpose of small engineering companies. I am not sure what is in our small corporate DNA that gives us this advantage, but short-term problem identification seems to be a characteristic many small engineering companies share.

Small problem identification does not equate to small problem solution – often a larger company is required to implement a solution (because the solution is often a project). It is a symbiotic relationship where both benefit from the other – much like the oxpecker bird and the zebra have a symbiotic relationship. One could function without the other, but one functions better with the other. And clearly, they do not compete with each other.

The lockdown will cause unprecedented change, including causing the closure of many small companies. Several of these companies are less than ten-person companies with a few core individuals with years of knowledge and experience, and it would be a shame for that knowledge base to be lost prematurely. And like with many ecosystems, the more diverse the ecosystem, the healthier it will be. I am hoping our global engineering ecosystem can survive this lockdown, and recovery.

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In spite of issues of excessive screen time, I think most people would say the smart phone has had a very positive impact on their lives. There are countless apps that can be downloaded that make our life easier, more interesting, more fun, and/or more informed.

But … I am of the opinion that the smart phone is one of the biggest threats to any engineering career. And the very way we are taught to think and solve problems is contributing to that thinking.

I recently went to a talk about future technologies. One speaker talked about how someone had developed an app that would

+ select a suburb

+ search for property prices

+ search for material costs and labour prices

+ search for population trend statistics

+ develop some simple housing profiles of new homes that could be built

And then (and this is the “scary” part)

+ create all drawings needed for construction

+ estimate all materials needed

+ schedule all pertinent labour

+ develop a cost estimate for the completed house, including clearing and land acquisition

<and behind me, I heard one loud whisper say … “That’s my job!”>

I did not track down that person, but it was clear from the tone of the statement that they were concerned about their job and job future. In thinking about it, that person could transition into something more customised like vintage home restoration (possibly seamlessly) but some change would be needed to survive. And when is likely to be now.

How are we contributing to this “problem”? Well … as engineers, we tend to modularise our problems, and our solutions. We tend to make drawing modules (for example, what valves and instruments are needed for a pump). It makes it easy and cost effective to implement a solution because we have seen most of it (or all of it) before and we know what worked. Unfortunately, anything that can be modularised can be converted into an app.

Looking ahead to the future, I do not see a light at the end of the tunnel. The students I am teaching have spent several years learning “this is the way to do this, this is the way to do that”, etc. I am amazed at how many “really good students” turn out to be only capable of entering numbers into their calculator. It makes my job extremely rewarding to see them actually “get it”.

I am convinced the way to stay ahead of an app is to understand why.  Understanding is something an app can not due yet (and it will take many advances in artificial intelligence before an app can understand). I am trying to do my part in my training deliver – both industrial and academic – I find it my job to convey comprehension. It is difficult, but incredibly rewarding.

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We recently delivered our 200th training course. It has been a fascinating journey.

And I would like to take this opportunity to advise you how to ATTEND a meeting with a speaker. You can actually help the speaker do a better job. And they are simple.

Tips to make the job of the speaker easier:

  1. Be honest with your body language. It does not matter if you are totally interested or totally bored, use your body language to convey that. If everyone is totally bored, the speaker will change the delivery method. If everyone is totally interested, the speaker will continue with that method of delivery. The worst thing a person can do is show a poker face. A poker face gives the speaker nothing to work with.
  2. Accept you know more than the speaker on some of the topic. You may know more about the topic than the speaker. But it is doubtful you know everything the speaker knows. Use the opportunity to see if you can learn more. And … if you can supplement what the speaker is saying, it adds gravity and credibility to the message, and shows you as an “expert” on the topic. I appreciate people that genuinely share their knowledge. If you challenge the speaker, be prepared – it is part of their training on how to “combat” those situations.
  3. If the speaker makes a mistake … it depends on the mistake. If it is a simple tongue slip, just correct it. If it is a significant issue, then engage in non-confrontational Q&A. It is common for the speaker to be making a very specific point.
  4. Do not disturb others. It is fine for you to be bored and for you to be playing with your phone while the speaker is speaking (see 1 above). But it is not acceptable to disturb others – they may be learning something. And, if you really REALLY feel the need to disturb others, do it outside of the venue.
  5. Understand the difference between training and consulting. This is specific to listening to a speaker delivering training. A consultant will collect data, analyse it, and try to solve your specific problem after a suitable period of time. A trainer talks about generalities, and must answer questions on the spot. It is not fair for ANYONE to expect consulting during training. The speaker understands that you want to solve your specific problem, but the data required for a proper analysis cannot be transferred during simple Q&A during training. And … you will probably get an unsuitable answer.
  6. Finally, after the session, tell the speaker what can be improved. Constructive criticism is always appreciated.

And enjoy your next session.

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I think we all understand mechanical integrity, and its importance to risk management. A loss of mechanical integrity will result in an incident, and the magnitude of the incident is based on the size and severity of the fluid that is released.

On the 24th of December 2016 I had a mechanical integrity incident. I had a crack in the callus on my left heel, which resulted in a strep/staph infection entering my leg. The severity of the incident … I was in hospital for 31 days.

Just like steel, our skin separates the process (the working mechanisms of our body) from the environment. Just like steel, we do not care what gets on the outside of our skin as long as our skin is not damaged or compromised. Damaged steel requires maintenance, and damaged skin requires maintenance.

For those of you that have had to respond to a loss of mechanical integrity incident, you know that you discover many things about the process, and you often take the opportunity to do other mini-maintenance projects. My infection was no different – and one of the most interesting mini-projects I did was lose 10 kg. I also quit coffee “cold turkey” (down from 6 cups per day to zero). How did I do it? Well … it is surprising how easy some things are when you are continuously hooked up to an intravenous drip. I honestly do not remember any caffeine withdrawal headaches at all.

So … some conclusions:

  • The principles of risk management and mechanical integrity management can be applied to people with little or no modification
  • Maintenance takes effort – until you reach the desired level of performance, maintenance takes more effort than you think
  • There is a cost associated with maintenance, and a cost associated with lack of maintenance – getting the balance right is very difficult (just ask any maintenance department)
  • (and the silly one) if you have a bad habit you want to break cold turkey, check into a hospital for one month and go on a drip.

By the way – I am doing well in my recovery. Still have a long ways to go but we will get there. With the exception of the need to medicate my leg, life is as close to normal as it can be.

Best of luck to you.


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The Paris Agreement on greenhouse gas management and reduction is now 1-year old, and it looks like it is causing a potential growth industry … waste gas management.

And … to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement, it looks like flaring will not be good enough. More processing will probably be needed.

The concepts of waste gas management will probably be the same as waste management, and follow the same hierarchy (prevention, minimisation, reuse, recycling, energy recovery, and disposal). But should they?

Prevention is an obvious desired outcome, but … outside of managing fugitive emissions (which is itself a big task) the only path to prevention that easily presents itself is a pre-treatment of some kind. And pre-treatment is often chemical process intensive – not a good option for simple industries.

Minimisation is a lesser form of prevention that focuses on efficiency instead of completion. Again, I think the path to minimisation is very similar to the path to prevention.

And that brings us to reuse, recycling, and energy recovery. All three of these require one thing … collection. And gas collection is never easy for two reasons:

  • The thing that helps us in solid and liquid waste collection – gravity – does not really help us in gas waste collection
  • The piping for gas waste collection is probably expensive (very low pressure driving forces, very low gas densities, very large pipe diameters).

The most common gas waste collection system is a flare, and the idea of doing more with a flare system is inherently expensive with (using previous thinking) minimal benefit. This combination of high cost and low benefit has often resulted in gas waste being processed minimally before being released to the environment (translation – we burn it).

Now, burning of hydrocarbon gases does reduce our greenhouse gas footprint compared to not burning them, but if we are going to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement, the reduction is probably not enough.

The issue of collection got me thinking … and I am starting to think that a combination of venturi type ejectors and the current fuel gas system could help reduce waste gas.

Now, some of you are probably thinking that venturi type ejectors are not very efficient. And you are correct. But … consider this:

  • Fuel gas is usually delivered at pressure (gas mains pressure) before being reduced to burner pressure or engine pressure (almost atmospheric pressure). <NOTE: this is not applicable to combustion gas turbines>
  • We have to reduce the pressure of the gas anyway, so efficiency tends to become a non-issue when we do not care – the current efficiency of the pressure drop in a simple Joule-Thomson type valve is 0% (zero benefit extracted).

This pressure drop could be used as the motive force to collect waste gases around the plant, for blending into the fuel system. The resulting mixture would be combusted (which is possibly currently done in a flare system ) but with the benefit of energy recovery that is not easily available from a flare system. If the waste gas has some other value, this would concentrate the “value” into one stream in a relatively centralised location, making value adding processing easier. A fuel gas conditioning system could be expanded to be both fuel gas conditioning and waste recovery.

So … while we are still burning the waste gas, we are getting some benefit from it, as opposed to the no benefit of flaring. And getting the benefit is the extra nudge we will probably need to help meet the Paris Agreement.

One big pushback on waste gas processing is the technology required. Consider pre-treatment of coal for CO2 minimisation – it turns a simple coal fired power station into a complex chemical plant. Waste gas management will need to be simple, but provide a positive impact per the Paris Agreement.

Another big pushback is simply a lack of perceived benefit. Waste gas processing will require incremental investment (people understand the cost of investing in a flare system, with negligible benefit for their investment) with what benefit? The Paris Agreement is a target, and government (or someone) needs to provide a mechanism to make it happen, be it economic or legislative.

Any further discussion / analysis of waste gas processing will probably require more information about the specifics of the waste gas, but … the idea of using fuel gas and venturi type ejectors are simple and do not make major changes to existing facilities. And … by centralising as an end of pipe concept, it makes outsourcing treatment easier.

I think the Paris Agreement will see an increased use of venturi like ejectors.

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The price of commodities is down. Almost all (if not all) commodities. Way down. One of the more interesting ones is oil, which (when the price bottomed) has had its price drop to the same price as it was in 2002.

Commodities are unusual because they do not follow “normal” economic models (like inflation). Past performance can give us a reasonable prediction of (for example) labour costs in 2018, or engineering costs in 2017, or maintenance costs in 2019. But if we want to buy something … it depends on what portion of the price is based on commodities prices – and it can be pot luck.

It makes one wonder … how do we optimise?

Generally, to optimise:

  • When product prices are high, we tend to look to maximise production, and expect the optimum to be near maximum (this assumes excess production can be sold without distorting the local market)
  • When product prices are low, we tend to look at minimising the cost of production. Things like efficiency, waste minimisation, energy management, etc can become key issues

Right now, there are very strong market forces helping to keep product prices of many things down. And … because of the “gap” between raw materials and finished goods and products, for some companies profits are quite high.

So with commodity prices down, energy prices down, and very strong market forces in place to make many product prices low, how does one optimise? I would expect the fundamentals of optimisation are still in place, but the key is probably to look for efficiencies in as many different forms as possible. For example:

  • Does the safety instrumented system experience spurious trips? Times like these tend to change these trips from annoying to economically an issue. Reducing spurious trips is an economic optimisation (along with a safety optimisation)
  • Does the steam trap leak? While the answer is usually “yes”, a leaking steam trap means fuel is consumed to make steam that is ultimately vented for no useful purpose. So reducing steam trap leaks is an economic optimisation (along with the environmental optimisation)
  • Should we paint now, or delay and paint next year on next year’s budget? Maintenance is always an interesting one, as a short delay is often perceived as only an inconvenience. And since optimisation often requires numerical values, we can probably manipulate the data to get the result we want. Hmm …

Are we looking in the right place? Where else can we look?

While Darwin is credited with saying “survival of the fittest” he also said that the species that survive are most able to adapt to change. He based this partially on his observations of the finches in the Galapagos Islands, and subsequent studies show they evolve each season (based on rain, and the subsequent availability of different types of food). But how can companies / organisations adapt?

And … change is hard. Ever put your watch on the other wrist? It functions perfectly well on the other wrist, but … we always move it back because it feels comfortable. Change is often uncomfortable.

What can I suggest? Well … first of all, anything I suggest could be considered a conflict of interest (please give me credit for being honest) but … I would suggest some open slather brainstorming. Involving everyone. Some of the more interesting changes I have heard include:

  • Shutting down the supervisory control system on Friday night shift to give the operators a chance to run the plant in manual or basic control. I know of one organisation that is doing this – I am not fully aware of any risk management issues to make this happen
  • Search for extra capacity for quality. Not extra capacity for volume, but extra capacity for more purity. A higher purity may allow a higher selling price. One organisation is using a higher purity product to create “space” to accept waste. The new product still meets all contractual and product specifications, but they have converted a waste stream (a pure expense) into revenue, and the extra operating cost is lower than the extra revenue
  • Make sure your SIS testing is up to date
  • Find ways to incorporate text based meeting minutes into big data
  • Find ways to incorporate text based meeting minutes into other meetings seamlessly
  • <and possibly the most intersting one – mentioned by a friend and former work-colleague before our careers went very different ways> Using threaded connections on hydrocarbon piping up to 6-inch / DN150 to reduce assembly cost. Many company standards forbid this, but my friend’s company has decided to re-write the company standards

I am sure there are others. And while the open slather list of ideas may or may not eventuate, you must admit … brainstorming can be fun. Some companies can manage the expected and unexpected cycles extremely well, and others cannot. Every type of business is effected by cycles, be it a manufacturing company, a consultancy, a vendor, even a government regulator. The ability to manage cycles will impact staff morale, which will ultimately impact the bottom line (maybe not immediately, but long term). Let us know some of your ideas.

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After my November blog where I lamented that people did not learn from the mistakes of others, I am pleased to notice some organisations being pro-active in improving safety. This is culturally driven, and shows the organisation is switched on to all forms of safety.

They take many forms, and some of them are quite simple, but … it is clear they were done in the interest of improving safety.

And … all of these have been observed during my most recent time in the Middle East (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Oman).

First, I spent a bit of time at the Le Royal Meridien Hotel in Abu Dhabi. They had an evacuation map that led to a door that was usually locked. I reported this, and (I am pleased to say) they have acted with great haste to rectify the problem by getting replacement evacuation maps printed. They also kept me informed at all steps of the process (which they clearly did not need to do). While I was the initiator of this action, the fact that it was recognised, accepted, and acted upon extremely quickly with minimal need for upper level approval shows this hotel has (in my opinion) a good safety culture in place. Now … I am not going to write a glowing report on TripAdvisor about this hotel based on their safety record, but they still need to be recognised for a job well done.

Second, while in Dubai I used the services of a small laundry. The sign (in English) in the front just said “laundry” (I am convinced the full name was printed in Arabic, but not in English). Many of the smaller shops (especially during this time of year) tend to not use their air conditioner – instead using a fan and keeping the door(s) open. With temperatures in the shop about 28 deg C, it was reasonable for a short visit, and definitely saved money. Well, this laundry used a glass door – with no frame around the large piece of glass. When I left the shop, I almost walked into the door on the thin side (doing that thing where you turn and start walking before you look where you are going). The owner noticed this, and on my next visit, had rotated the reception desk about 30 degrees. The change in layout was minimal, but it greatly reduced the chance of a customer walking into the edge of the door. The owner was totally proactive, made a simple, low cost change that has nothing but positive impact. Again, they need to be recognised for a job well done.

Third, I must recognise Oman Air. They have a very good pre-flight safety briefing. Yes the pre-flight safety briefing that everyone has seen before, and the one we normally ignore and snooze through. Unlike airlines like Air New Zealand (which have used hobbits and super models for their pre-flight safety briefing) Oman Air has decided to use a simple cartoon animation. It is simple, but it is done really well. It shows families, not individuals, and it shows children being normal. There is one young boy that seems to be always looking for mischief, and his father keeps him under control with a gentle hand. <Aside … while the video does not tell parents to control their children, the visual reinforcement is very much appreciated>.  The fact that families are in the video shows how WE (a group) should act in an emergency, instead of how I (an individual) should act in an emergency. It is a simple concept done really well.

And finally, I must recognise the government of Victoria, specifically the new road accident advertisement. They are trying to change our mentality about road deaths, as we have become complacent with the status quo. They ask a very simple but hard hitting question … how many road deaths are acceptable? After a little bit of television magic, the person answering the question says … zero. And THAT is the correct answer. Somehow we need to convince others and ourselves that one is too many, and we need to improve our road safety. Legislation can only go so far – we need cultural changes (like not speeding, like not using the phone while driving, like not driving while tired, like taking breaks to refresh ourselves, etc).

So … a tip of the hat to four organisations that did something to improve the culture of safety.

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The Road to Global Accreditation

The short version (where I skip the details and go right to the end) … The IChemE has globally accredited our Heat Integration course!

The long version (where I tell you about the journey) …

I have been delivering industrial training since 2007, and it has been a big growth portion of our work (now more than 50% of our work). Since then we have delivered almost 200 courses.

One of the things I have noticed is how training has become more structured and formal. For example, here in Australia, a person must be certified to deliver training (and I have earned my Certificate IV in Training and Assessment). And … many courses are now linked to career progression. For example, many industry associations recognise some training courses, and allow them to progress. For example, industry associations such as Engineers Australia recognise some training as part of the path of becoming a professional engineer.

Getting a course accredited is therefore something that I should investigate and determine if it is in my best interest. To do this, two things are needed – a course, and an accreditor.

The course I chose was our heat integration course.

The accreditor I chose was the Institution of Chemical Engineers.

And the journey has been long and challenging with numerous twists and turns.

  • Even though I am a member (at the time a Chartered member, since then I have become a Fellow), it was difficult to find the right person to contact. Eventually (months) we found the right person (or so I thought)
  • After a couple of staff issues (people leaving the Institution for various reasons) I found the correct person again, and this time it WAS the correct person.
  • Then the IChemE has different levels of accreditation (which I did not know about). The different levels were global and local. I was accredited locally but I did not understand the distinction.
  • The distinction was not clear after the IChemE marketed the course. Based on feedback it was a technical success but a commercial small win.
  • Eventually the distinction become apparent, and I pursue global accreditation. This requires extra effort on my part – and a small fee.

And a couple of days ago, I was advised by email … The IChemE has globally accredited our Heat Integration course!

So … <insert cheeky comment> we look forward to hearing from all corners of the engineering fraternity who want to learn what you have been meaning to learn about heat integration but haven’t bothered, until NOW <insert blushing smiley face>

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I recently viewed the video from the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) on the fire at Caribbean Petroleum Corporation in Puerto Rico in 2009 (you can see the video here

I was surprised to see many similar issues with the fire at the Buncefield facility in the UK (December 2005).

The idea of learning from the mistakes of others is something our parents try to teach us. We are taught to not repeat the mistakes of our parents, our grandparents, our extended family, our neighbours, and key people / organisations in history. We are also taught this in school (a key learning of history classes).

Many things that we learn at a young age now come naturally to us. Why does learning from the mistakes of others not come natural to us? I do not know. But I understand the need to do it better.

Back on the CSB, this video ( shows how a practice in two very different industries (food processing and electric power generation) was common enough to cause similar outcomes (explosions).

So why do we continue to put our heads in the sand and not look at others when it comes to process safety? I do not know.

  • Is it because people tend to rely on standards and regulations? If it meets regulations, it must be safe, right? A colleague recently told me about a fire in a reactor that “met regulations”.
  • Is it because people tend to not take safety seriously when dealing with “safe stuff”? The Honolulu Molasses spill of 2013 highlights that problem.
  • Is it because people and organisations tend to rest on their reputation? I can offer no solid proof, but look at DuPont for an analogy of a company that had a great safety reputation in the past, and has a less great safety reputation now.

By the way … looking back at my career, I can remember situations where I have been guilty of all three of the above (almost all of them when I was young).

I have become convinced that the ability to willingly learn from the mistakes of others is a key part of a good safety culture. And because the ability to willingly learn is difficult to quantify, I expect it is not part of any KPI – therefore it is difficult to implement.

I am also pleased to hear others think constructively about safety and safety culture. One of my former students recently told me that he thinks anytime one looks at a mobile phone while driving – it is a near miss. He says there is 1-2 seconds where the driver does not know what is going on. Since driving requires the driver to be in control at all times, this 1-2 second period is a period when the driver is not in control. I think his idea makes perfect sense, and I have added it to my safety thinking.

In closing, I would like to paraphrase one of my mentors. He said there are three ways for many men to learn (sorry ladies, the story does not work well for you).

<Category 1> He says there are men that learn by reading the instructions (the safe way, especially if the reasons are explained, but this puts a demand on the technical writer).

<Category 2> He says there are men that learn by watching others (another safe way, especially if the results are available).

<Category 3> And … he says there are just some men … the only way they will learn is to urinate on the electric fence.

My training business tries to encourage people to move into categories one and two, but my consulting business is happy for people to remain in category three.

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I recently delivered a training course in SE Asia, and met a young environmental engineer. She told me about her water treatment system that discharged cleaned water to the environment. It soon became clear that one instrument was paramount to her having a good day or her having a bad day – it was the instrument that measured contaminant concentration in ppm (and for confidentiality, I am not going to identify the contaminant).

As the course progressed, it became clear (to me) that she trusted the system that was in place, but the system might not have been thoroughly challenged.

<let me say that differently>

From my understanding of how the system worked, it was not important to clean the water to “x” ppm, but to make sure the instrument did not read above “x” ppm of contaminant.

She looked at me with a very confused look. I then told her my “war stories” <aside, it is the obligation of the training provider to provide pertinent “war stories” to show the relevance of the learnings>.

I was once working in a riverside oil refinery as a consultant. The plant cleaned its water to x ppm of oil and grease before discharging the water into the adjacent river. It was just at dawn, and the light was such that you could see a sheen on the water. I reported this to my host. She did not go look at the sheen, but instead went to the control room to look at the oil-in-water analyser reading (which was under the discharge limit). She then went to the instrument and looked at the local reading (which was also under the discharge limit). She then told me that all was OK, and there was no issue.

When I asked again about the sheen, she re-iterated that they were required to discharge water of a certain cleanliness, which they were doing. The implication was that the sheen was irrelevant.

Back to my training, and the delegate had a concerned look on her face.

I then continued the war story. After leaving the refinery, I told a good friend (an excellent instrumentation engineer), and she said that she once worked in a facility where the water discharge pipe was not full, and the sample system was measuring the vapour space. When they figured this out, they put an upside down “U” on the pipe outlet, which flooded the pipe, and ensured the analyser measured liquid. The contaminant reading went WAY up when they did this.

Back to my training, and the delegate said her company routinely calibrated the instrument.

I then told her that an instrument will only measure the data delivered to it. Calibration checks the ability of the instrument to measure the data delivered to it, but if the incorrect data is delivered, the instrument is “wrong”. I then used a simple example of a pressure gauge. If the inlet valve to the pressure gauge is closed, the pressure gauge will continue to measure pressure, but the wrong pressure.

To finish my analogy, I used the story of a professional Australian Rules (AFL) football player from the 1990s that had chronic fatigue syndrome. He took steroids as part of his treatment for chronic fatigue, even though steroids were banned as a performance enhancing drug by the league. We know he took them because he confessed to taking them. But his chronic fatigue was severe enough that he consumed all of the steroids, and he never returned a positive drug test. He was not banned. Moral … taking steroids is not against the rules, but returning a positive drug sample is. Moral applied to her situation … you can discharge above the environmental limits, but your instrument must say you did not.

Finally, I suggested to her that she needed to have confidence in the entire system, not just the instrument.

And based on the look on her face, she did not. We finished the discussion on how she could get confidence in her system.

And … I think I did my job of delivering training, because I provided insight to help her do her job better – which is the ultimate purpose of training.