How to Qualify Personnel to Perform Lubrication Tasks

Wes Cash, Noria Corporation
Tags: lubrication programs

Lubrication is a skilled trade that requires skilled personnel. Unfortunately, it often is regarded as menial work, which can lead to inconsistent practices and poor equipment reliability. When managers take the time to train their staff and ensure everyone has the necessary skills to perform the work, the results can be extraordinary. While developing an appropriate training plan and targeting it to your workforce can be challenging, a few key objectives will help make this possible.

Who’s Responsible?

The first decision that must be made is determining which staff members will be responsible for specific activities within the lubrication program. Keep in mind that a single lube program can have activities that range from janitorial (cleaning the lube room) to scientific (diagnosing failures in oil analysis reports) and everything in between.

Some facilities divide the tasks among different crafts or departments based on maintenance philosophies or manpower constraints. It is not uncommon to have as many as three to four different departments involved in varying degrees. Of course, this increases the risk of inconsistency in the work being performed.

Task Types

Next, identify the types of tasks that must be completed in the lubrication program. These tasks can be broken down into several categories, including inspections, routine relubrication, sampling, on-condition work and one-off tasks. Each of these categories will have important steps that must be followed but can and often are assigned to different craftspeople. This can be due to the nature of the work or the manpower in the various groups at the facility.

Inspections

The most common tasks associated with lubrication are inspections related to the lubricant level and quality, as well as equipment accessories such as breathers, filters, seals and other items installed to aid in the maintenance of the machine. These inspections tend to dominate the total number of tasks in a lube program. Operations personnel frequently perform some of these inspections.

The idea is that operators will be around the equipment far more often than other departments, so these inspections can become part of a daily round or checklist that must be completed by the operators at the start of their shift. This further distributes the workload and allows for more departments to become involved in the lubrication program.

Reliable Plant Conference

Regardless of who conducts the inspections, there is a tendency to overlook or “pencil-whip” the inspection round. When you do the same task every day, it’s easy to become complacent and simply fill out the checklist or document as if everything is OK, rather than taking the time and being cognizant as to what is actually happening.

To combat this, create metrics based on the inspection results or reward those who catch abnormalities during an inspection round. This keeps each member honest and can help make those performing the inspections more diligent.

On-Condition Tasks

On-condition work usually is associated with abnormal findings from an inspection or test. Depending on how severe the abnormality is, other departments may be called in to fix the issue. Among the most common on-condition task is the topping up of a reservoir with oil. In this case, the inspector has checked the sight glass and determined the oil level is too low for proper machine function.

This in turn creates an on-condition task of topping up the reservoir to the optimum level. The inspector may be the one who adds the oil or may simply note this in the inspection checklist to generate a task for the lube team or department that handles the lubrication.

Top-ups must be performed in a manner that restricts the ingress of contamination, while certain devices must be in place to ensure the right lubricant is used. This is where the greatest risk of cross-contamination occurs, as it is very easy to grab the wrong oil container and fill the reservoir. Training and labeling can help to mitigate this from being an issue.

Other examples of on-condition work in a lubrication program include changing breathers and oil filters that have become saturated. An inspection can identify saturation by either a gauge reading or a color-change indicator. The inspector typically will change a breather since this is a minor task.

However, a lube technician or maintenance person may need to change a filter, depending on how the system is set up and whether the filter is a simple spin-on version or a more complex drop-in style.

Another on-condition task is decontaminating a reservoir by utilizing a filter cart. The trigger for this task comes from an oil analysis test result. An oil sample has been extracted and sent to the lab, with the results indicating a high particle count. The lube tech now must take the filter cart to the system, attach it and filter the oil until the desired cleanliness level is achieved.

Using filter carts and attaching them to a system generally is regarded as a task best done by the lubrication or maintenance team. On the surface, this task may seem relatively easy, but there are complexities that require a high level of knowledge to ensure it is being performed properly. Without training on utilizing a filter cart and determining clean-up rates for the equipment, the task may not be completed with the desired level of accuracy.

Routine Work

The routine work of periodic relubrication is sometimes divided into different departments based on what is being relubricated. For instance, many plants rely on electricians to regrease electric motors, while others believe this is best done by the lube team. Some facilities prefer that operators carry out all regreasing tasks, with maintenance or lubrication personnel performing all the oil changes.

These tasks can be distributed to different teams, but the best results often are when a single team owns the work. This allows more accountability to ensure the work is accomplished and makes it easier to train those who are involved.

For routine work, the simplest relubrication task is the lubrication of total-loss systems. These typically are chains or slideways which require a simple spray of oil or grease. Since the total charge of lubricant eventually is lost to the machine and these devices are completely exposed to the environment, cleanliness generally is not much of a concern, as it is not controllable. These tasks may be sent to operations to perform as part of their daily rounds.

Regreasing can be highly technical depending on the component and how grease is applied. Utilizing a feedback technology such as ultrasound will help identify how much grease to add as well as how often to apply it. This technology requires training and experience, so it usually is left to the lube team.

A condition monitoring team may also complete this work, as they will be charged with all types of predictive maintenance, including vibration, infrared, ultrasound and oil analysis.

The changing of oil in a system may demand a high degree of skill and for the machine to be removed from operation. These tasks normally are left in the hands of the lube team, as they will be able to take any samples needed during the change-out and can filter the incoming oil to ensure it is clean.

Maintenance personnel may also be involved in this work depending on the number of oil changes required. During outages and turnarounds, it is common for multiple departments to help with oil changes.

Sampling

Extracting lubricant samples is highly specialized work that should be performed by trained individuals, such as the plant’s lubrication or condition monitoring team. On the surface, collecting a lubricant sample may seem simple and straightforward, yet there are many intricacies that can taint the results.

Previously, all lube samples were exclusively oil, but new technology has made grease sampling easier to aid in the diagnosis of grease-lubricated equipment failures.

Regardless of the lubricant being sampled, the work must be done consistently and in a manner that eliminates outside contaminants. Samples should be taken from an area that is representative of the lubricant in the system so the results can be analyzed for corrective action.

The diagnostic work related to lube sampling is even more specialized and frequently requires an individual becoming trained in this specific discipline. The work is often assigned to managers or engineers, with all test results coming across their desk for more detailed analysis.

Without the proper training, this person may miss some of the incipient failures that can be clearly shown within the body of the reports. Simply relying on the comments from the testing lab will not be enough to get the most out of the lube sampling program.

One-off Tasks

Certain tasks in the lubrication program are performed only once. These generally include machine modifications or changing of a lubricant from one type to another. Once completed, these tasks are no longer valid and typically are not part of the computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) or lubrication software.

Machine modifications involve the installation of various inspection and contamination control hardware. Normally, these modifications are made during oil changes or turnarounds to allow for easier inspection of the lubricant as well as to improve the ability to add, drain or decontaminate lubricants while they are in service. It is common for maintenance personnel to carry out this work.

Changing a lubricant from one type to another may require the flushing of the cavity to ensure there is little risk of incompatibility. This often is performed by the lube team and is regarded as highly skilled work, especially when a large volume of oil in a complex machine is being changed. This task demands a clear plan and all the necessary materials for the changeover. Aside from changing oils, switching greases can be just as challenging.

Documented Procedures and Checklists

Documented procedures and checklists are essential to make certain that the individual performing the work has at least a basic understanding of the task that needs to be accomplished. Procedures and checklists can level the playing field in regard to experience. If someone has been doing the work for years, complacency frequently can set in, but a checklist helps to verify that he or she hits all the necessary points.

For new hires, a detailed, step-by-step procedure ensures they treat the equipment with the same level of care as their more experienced counterparts. The importance of these documents cannot be overstated.

Education, Training and Certification

Understanding why each task must be completed in the specified manner will help your team be more engaged in their work. For example, knowledge of how simple sight-glass inspections may prevent catastrophic failures can drive home the need for these tasks to be performed with diligence and care every time.

The top organizations certify their lube team members in lubrication-specific disciplines. Certification adds credibility and creates ownership of the program. At least one person in the plant should own all the lubrication program and have a higher degree of knowledge and certification in lubrication. This individual should also be involved in the onboarding of new lube professionals at the facility.

By incorporating a hands-on component in the training of new lube technicians, you can further instill the practices you want to incorporate in the daily work. It often is best to explain, demonstrate and then coach individuals on how to complete a particular task before having them show you how to perform it.

This simple process enables you to observe them accomplishing the task and verify that they are qualified to do the work. It also allows for coaching to be done more quickly without the risk of having an unqualified person working unsupervised.

As you can see, many tasks in a lubrication program require training and coaching to ensure they are done properly. Without emphasis on each element, it will be difficult to transition from the status quo to world class.

If you haven’t done so already, document who is responsible for each aspect of the lubrication program and start training your team based on the criticality of the work being performed. With consistent effort and focus, you can have a highly skilled lube team in a short amount of time.