PetroSkills Blog

Refinery Redesigns Critical Training in Response to COVID-19 Crisis


By 2020, many companies had already begun attempts to transition their training from face-to-face and add more e-learning and virtual delivery, but the COVID-19 pandemic hastened these companies to make their move with immediacy! Additionally, the industry’s financial health, used to previous highs and lows of economic cycles, faced an oil price decline in the beginning of 2020 that was coupled with a collapse in demand due to COVID-19 restrictions unlike other times.

This case study is about how one company successfully converted key operator training from Face-to-Face to Blended quickly and inexpensively in response to COVID-19 concerns by using PetroSkills ePilot e-learning to deliver awareness and knowledge-level content.

The Challenges

Like most refineries and chemical process companies, this client had critical training courses for operators. The courses they were most concerned about were focused on process safety, mainly abnormal situations—how to recognize them, and how to properly respond to them. Certain process units have a history in industry of high-consequence upsets or abnormal situations and these courses were necessary for both refining and chemical process units. Some examples are crude distillation units, cat crackers, hydrocrackers, and steam crackers.
Previous to COVID-19 this mandatory training was:

• Critical to process safety, so it was imperative to not postpone this training
• Delivered face-to-face (F2F), on-site for about 8 hours in duration
• High quality, but varied a bit from technology to technology and site to site
• Costly

o Delivered to operators on off-days with overtime pay
o Instructors traveled to sites and required scheduling

• Facilitated by senior engineers with extensive experience and expertise on the process
• Content

o Some theory and basics for a particular process
o Discussion of the primary hazards for the process
o Major incidents that have occurred in industry and examples, where applicable.
o Unique site-specific hazards or incidents

Project Goals

The client knew the instructional design of this course could be improved and had previously faced resistance to changing the courses. That resistance was diminished and change was necessitated during the COVID-19 pandemic, so the client took this opportunity to redesign the course and meet their goals.
They had to make changes. Goals/requirements for the redesign were:

• Maintain quality
• Minimize personnel exposure
• Minimize cost
• Minimize time to Implement
• Retain the same content
• Keep some high value interactions with a subject matter expert (SME)

The first consideration was to minimize exposure for operators and instructors. The focus of this solution was something the learning teams had been wanting to implement before the COVID-19 crisis, they needed to incorporate virtual training. The major change would be converting the generic awareness and knowledge level content from face-to-face to virtual. Options were evaluated with a cross-functional team of learning staff from the site, a centralized learning team, a site SME, and a global process SME. Several options were considered.

• Use the F2F training presentations as virtual training
• Use external virtual content
• Develop their own virtual content internally
• Create videos for training

The existing face-to-face training was a lecture-based with all content in slide presentations. They also had access to a few different sources of external virtual content. Some of this from PetroSkills ePilot programs, some as part of a package from a vendor of generic process simulations. The client evaluated creating videos or new elearning based on the existing presentations, but the cost and time to complete were not competitive with the PetroSkills ePilot elearning. In addition, they wanted a way to verify and validate that the operators had completed the virtual content. Creating their own videos based on the presentations wouldn’t provide this capability.

For the first transition, the SMEs liked the PetroSkills eLearning better than others they had access to. Two PetroSkills ePilot courses on fired heaters covered the general awareness and knowledge level learning they had been covering with face-to-face. They also discussed creating customer eLearning content with PetroSkills based on existing courses, but decided to use the two PetroSkills eLearning courses in their existing form. The added benefits of using the ePilot programs were the ability to track completions in their corporate learning management system (LMS), to test knowledge, and for operators to do the elearnings on-shift, eliminating the need to train on off-days with overtime pay.

Implementing the Solution

The existing face-to-face training content was in slide presentations that were found to be insufficient to stand alone as training. Previously, the fundamentals part of the course was lecture-based and the presentation slides alone didn’t provide the required training. The PetroSkills elearning content had similar graphics as the slides, but also had the lectured information, so it could perform the work of the face-to-face instructor. The face-to-face training lacked feedback on how well the operators understood the theory and basics. The PetroSkills eLearning programs are more interactive than the original training and work in a virtual environment with the addition of frequent knowledge checks, evaluations, self-paced, and on demand. In 2 months, the cross-functional team finalized the plan and content of the new course.

The Solution 

• PetroSkills ePilot elearning modules were chosen for the awareness and knowledge level content
• Operators complete the elearning on-shift, during down time or with backup coverage
• Completions and knowledge tests are now tracked in the corporate LMS.
• Remaining face-to-face training was delivered by an onsite SME, on-shift, over lunch and breaks (and could also be delivered virtually, via Zoom, Skype or Microsoft Teams)

o eliminating travel expenses
o minimizing exposure
o with ability to see the equipment being discussed


In summary, this client’s refinery and chemical plants were able to successfully transition an important operator training course from all face-to-face to a blend of virtual and face-to-face. The effort took about 2 months to complete. The new approach allowed the course to be delivered with minimal exposure risks between shifts (physical distancing is an effective way to help reduce the risk of exposure to and spread of the coronavirus) and reduced SME exposure and travel. Costs were significantly reduced by allowing much of the course work to be completed by operators on-shift, eliminating overtime expenses. All awareness and knowledge level content was transitioned from face-to-face instruction to existing PetroSkills elearning programs. This had the additional benefit of completion and assessment tracking in their LMS. The PetroSkills eLearning programs provide a qualitative measure of how well the operators understand the eLearning modules. Training on site-specific equipment was still delivered face-to-face, but the amount of time and cost for this training was significantly reduced. The site-specific and instructor-led portion could have also been done virtually to eliminate all exposure risk. The client’s learning team had known they wanted to transition this course to a virtual blend, but they had previously faced resistance. The COVID-19 crisis not only reduced resistance, but generated a demand for virtual learning. The PetroSkills ePilot programs provided a quick way to transition from a solely instructor-led face-to-face course into a blended learning solution, reducing costs and minimizing risk. Feedback from operators and supervisors at the site is very good. This is now the standard approach going forward, and will be even after COVID.

About PetroSkills

As a trusted advisor to the petroleum industry for over 50 years, PetroSkills understands the challenges that our clients face every day. We can help:

• Bridge workforce knowledge gaps and develop an enterprise-wide training standard.
• Accelerate time to competency for facility engineers, project managers, operators, and technicians.
• Assure the integrity of investments by meeting regulatory and compliance demands.

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