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The modern industry worker: a new technology operator

The modern industry worker: a new technology operator

| Text and photo: Berit Kvam

“There’s no smoke, nobody seems to be around, what is it you’re doing?” A question often put by foreign visitors to the Director of Herøya Industrial Park. Change, improved efficiency and new technology has made an old industry competitive in the global market, and turned workers into knowledgeable operators.

“Higher skills levels are expected compared to only a few years ago,” says John Aspaas. He is an operator at the Yara fertiliser plant in Porsgrunn.

Surveying a number of monitors from behind a large control desk, he controls every step of the production process. A team of four people is all that is needed to keep the entire production of fertiliser going at this factory: three outside and one at the control desk.

”Yara International ASA is the world’s largest provider of mineral fertilisers and helps provide food and renewable energy to a growing world population,” the company website reads.

Yara began as Hydro in Norwegian Notodden in 1905. Today the global company employs more than 9,000 people and operates in more than 50 countries. The city of Porsgrunn now hosts Yara’s and Europe’s largest production of so-called full fertiliser (NPK) based on the nitrophosphate process. From here, just under 400 employees produce three million tonnes of fertiliser a year. Compare that to the 1970s, when 3,000 employees produced 1.5 million tonnes.

Not many years ago government and political party advisors said Norway’s traditional land-based industry was doomed, says Thor Oscar Bolstad, Director of Herøya Industrial Park:

“It was considered to be old-fashioned and even labour intensive. I said it then and I say it now; these must have been people who had never visited a modern industry workplace. You see nearly no people out in the factory today, and the improvement in efficiency and technology is crazy. So much has happened so fast, and so big.

“One of the major changes has taken place on the operator side of things. Many of the unskilled jobs are gone: sewing bags, filling bags, transport and logistics are all jobs largely taken over by machines and equipment. Today’s operators are more skilled.”

In the control room

“When I started working at Hydro’s saltpetre plant in 1987 I didn’t have a certificate of apprenticeship or anything,” says John Aspaas.

“This never happens now, people coming in off the streets. Now we have apprentices who work here for several years and learn. I have got my certificate of apprenticeship here at the company, but it doesn’t meet today’s demands.”

“Here you see a close-up of the result,” says Jan Bøyesen, pointing to an image of small, round specs:

Jan Bøyesen

“On this screen he can see what he is making. Here the product comes out. This is before it is sifted and crushed, because we want a product of a certain size.”

Did John Aspaas make that?

“Yes, he and three others who are on duty work together to make fertiliser, which is the product you see here. If he doesn’t do his job, nothing is made, and if the three people out in the factory don’t do their job there is also nothing. So it’s a joint effort between those on the outside and on the inside. The ones on the factory floor wear headsets, look, listen, smell and turn valves and give feedback to the control room if something needs adjusting.”

How do you keep in touch with the three out working in the factory?

“I’ve got them on my headset here,” says John Aspaas.

“If something happens, they’ll call me up. I then might have to stop or change things here from the control desk, depending on what the matter is. We have more images than what we see right not, we can rotate the images on the monitors. The entire process, everything that happens, is shown on the monitors and whoever is at the control desk must know every little detail.”

Operators - a new occupation

“We used to have many hands at work. The movement of goods or raw materials was based on lifting or moving something or shifting a few tonnes. Today this does not happen. Those jobs are gone. They are automated, machines and robots have taken over.

“Now we hire young people with solid certificates of apprenticeships to boot, who often take further training. They manage large parts of the factory and sit in control rooms, work out in the factories, look at the running of things, look at maintenance needs and they market these jobs as exciting and future-oriented jobs,” says Director Thor Oscar Bolstad at Herøya Industrial Park.

Thor Oscar Bolstad

“When we receive foreign visitors they wonder whether we have closed the factories down because we are expecting visitors. Don’t you have employees? What is happening? What are you doing?”

Is this not usual elsewhere?

“No. At Herøya an Austrian company producing magnesium oxide has built a new factory. Some of my colleagues visited similar factories around the world. They returned, saying: we can’t run a factory like that here in Norway. We’re not allowed to make that much noise, we’re not allowed to emit that much dust and we’re not allowed to emit that much gas.

“If you’re building a factory in Norway it can’t be labour intensive. We have to invest in new technology because labour is expensive. Norwegian workers don’t carry out manual tasks anymore. We’re done with this. 

“Yara has cut staffing so much that there is no more give. When they want to increase production, they have to do the same with staffing levels.”

The control 

“There are three of us outside and one inside who must have an overview over the entire area, carry out inspections and make sure there are no unusual sounds. I have one area outside but I’m not out there all the time. I use the monitors as well to see how things are working out,” explains Øyvind Bjerva and shows how he has his own monitors to control his outdoor area of responsibility.

“These two monitors make up the operator station. Outdoors operators can go in and out. If you discover something suspicious out there, you can go inside to check out what it was you saw.

“Here’s a red light. There’s an alarm. It means the level in the tank is too low.” 

What do you do then?

“I have to tell the guy who controls the factory,” says Bjerva.

“When the level in that tank is low, I need to increase the amount which goes into it. I need to go in and adjust the vent,” adds John Aspaas.

Do you have to do many adjustments like that over an hour?

“Now that we have increased production we need to sit here and pay pretty close attention all of the time.”

The production runs like this 24 hours a day, all year long. The four people on each shift work very independently and make decisions late in the evenings, overnight and at weekends. 

Improving efficiency

Can operators suggests improvements to the production process too?

“Yes. if we notice recurrent problems out in the factory, we need to find a solution. We can then suggests ways of solving it which we put in a designated database. The suggestion is then picked up by management and union representatives and looked at.”

It could be a suggestion which simply says ‘we want this thing to change.’ But often the operators have analysed the suggestion very well themselves.

“If management and union representatives agree, changes are made and we get a bonus. Usually a gift voucher. We have been to Reykjavik and to Madrid thanks to things we have come up with,” says Øyvind Bjerva.

“We have what we call a quality award,” adds shift coordinator Jan Bøyesen.  

“This factory has won the quality award many times. We are proud of this and it benefits the company.”

“This is the Nordic model in real life,” says the Director of Herøya Industrial Park Thor Oscar Bolstad.

“For us it goes without saying that the operator, director and unions talk together and find solutions together. Coming up with good ideas is also a part of being a modern operator.”

Herøya Industrial Park

Herøya portlet

“There aren’t many robots here. There’s chemistry and process steps. There’s high temperature, gas, evaporation, columns, elements, gases, liquids. That is what process industry is, says Thor Oscar Bolstad, Director at Herøya Industrial Park.

Herøya Industrial Park hosts some of Norway’s leading process industry companies. 80 percent of what is being produced here is for export. In all, the industrial park comprises 90 companies employing 2,500 people. Most of them are small with fewer than 10 employees. Many offer services which are cast-offs from larger businesses, for which new markets have been found. The large process industry companies are the park’s engines. 

What are the advantages of an industrial park?

“It is fantastic to have access to a site covering 1.5 square kilometres, earmarked and built for industry. It means you have a basic infrastructure which you won’t find elsewhere. If you need to build a factory and need huge amounts of water, lots of electricity, steam, a port, road access, shift labour - this park has it all. We think that if we were to build a similar park with electricity and water supply we would have to spend tens of billions of kroner. All this is already here. You just have to plug in. We are 50 metres away from process water arriving at an x number of cubic litres an hour, you have a great capacity electrical grid with low redundancy which means low start-up costs. We have a site regulated for industrial use and no neighbours to think of, this is industry.

“We have an industry culture in the region. Families are used to people working shifts. This is not the case everywhere in Norway, and we also have many service providers around us who know industry. 

“When new industries open up here, they list these main things as the reasons for choosing Herøya and Grenland. But also that Norway has reasonably priced electricity, political stability and good relations between industry workers and management. This, the Norwegian model which has been talked about so much lately, we have lived with and experienced for years.”  

The process industry which has been established on the old Norsk Hydro site faces new environmental challenges. How does that influence the industry?

“I see that this type of industry has gained an advantage by being ahead of things. They get pay-back for working in a high cost country. When processes are so efficient it means they have to be good when it comes to the environment and energy.”


Read more about Herøya Industrial Park
Facts about Yara

Yara International ASA is the world’s largest provider of mineral fertilisers and helps provide food and renewable energy to the world’s population. Yara was founded in Notodden in 1905.

The company now employs more than 9,000 people and operates in more than 50 countries.

Read more:
Controlling the production

Operator John Aspaas controls the fertiliser production. In the background: shift coordinator Jan Bøyesen and outdoors operator Øyvind Bjerva


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