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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.