Shutdowns are a risky business. It means essentially switching off business as usual industrial operations until planned maintenance has been completed, and any delays can end up costing millions of dollars.

Temporary shutdown crews are called in while the usual staff are redirected to other tasks. For those working on the shutdown, deadlines are always looming over their heads as they try to get a huge amount of work done in a small amount of time.

The quicker they get the shutdown works finished, the higher the return on investment. The longer it takes, the more money gets wasted.

However, for those in charge, rushing everything and failing to do right by the project team will always make things worse in the long run.

The aim of shutdowns is to get the planned work done safely, as efficiently as possible and at a minimum cost, so the plant can get up and running again – in other words, back to generating the all-important revenue.

To reduce indirect costs, time is king. A well-defined, resource-balanced schedule must be maintained throughout the shutdown period to make sure construction crews work efficiently.

In 2017, GBA Projects oversaw five shutdowns across Australia with people flying in from all over Australia to support the project teams.

And like many years prior, we noticed that to keep costs down, most organisations tended to reduce the number of management staff and therefore the shutdown team’s head count.

The issue there is important tasks like supervision, scheduling and cost management aren’t properly attended to and the understaffing leaves team members overworked and heavily fatigued.

Shutdowns often take place in isolated, rural communities, which means you have people flying/driving in and out and only having a few days at home before they have to be back on site. So they don’t get much recovery time in between.

Flowing on from all that is an increased chance of these workers getting sick, having accidents, making errors and, in some cases, experiencing mental health issues.

Sure, things are better than they used to be – we have campaigns like R U OK and people are more aware of the impacts of mental health, but ultimately the responsibility to report the problem is left up to someone who is already stressed out and under immense pressure to get their work done.

What started out as a tightly knit project team can quickly disintegrate. The culture can turn sour and retention of shutdown staff becomes a huge issue, especially when everyone’s fed up and unable to perform at their best.

Making this worse is when you have less experienced individuals in the shutdown teams creating more work for the rest of the team, who have to pick up the slack and fix mistakes made by others – all on top of their 12 to 14-hour day workload.

Attracting the right people to the job and retaining them is important, and yet we’ve seen organisations unwilling to pay the required rates to achieve this. As the saying goes, if you pay peanuts, you’ll get monkeys.

Often there’s no Plan B if the team you’ve assembled aren’t cutting it. They’re usually casually employed, which means they can decide to leave with no notice and you have little time to react.

Sounds scary, right? It doesn’t have to be if you make smarter rosters and support your personnel.

Top tips for shutdowns:

  • Project teams need to recognise the vital role managers play in shutdowns and make sure they have the right people (with the right amount of emotional intelligence) in charge.
  • You need experienced staff throughout the team, so make sure you have enough resources and an attractive roster to both bring in and retain quality workers.
  • Ensure a healthy mix of seniority and youth. Whilst the younger generation aren’t as experienced as the old, their abilities to use data analytics software means that they can support senior supervisory decision making process with far greater ease.
  • Maintain a positive team culture by helping staff set goals and provide incentives like bonuses and awards. Create a culture where the team owns the outcomes of the shutdown.
  • Using efficient engineering, planning and control systems will reduce workloads on site. The more complex they are, the more effort needed to manage the data.
  • Support from family, close friends and off-site colleagues goes a long way to support the well-being of the person working on the shutdown.

By Bruce Oldfield

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