By: Donagh Fitzgerald B.Prod Eng and Claire Wilson BSc. Last Updated: April 2024

What is a Process Operator?

Process Operators operate and monitor chemical or biochemical manufacturing processes. They are typically found in industrial scale continuous flow manufacturing environments. These are places where raw materials (e.g. milk, oil, natural gas, etc.) are turned into an end product (e.g. butter, beer, milk formula, drugs, vaccines, paint, etc.) using heat, cold, pressure, or a chemical agent. These individuals play a crucial role in ensuring the smooth and efficient running of manufacturing or production processes. 

Some companies call this role:

  • BioProcess Operator
  • BioProcess Manufacturing Operator
  • Chemical Process Operator
  • Cleanroom Operator

According to the BLS 2022 report on chemical plant and system operators, the median average wage is $39.75 per hour and the median average salary is $82,670 per year.

Entry-level salaries range from €35,000 – €45,000 plus overtime, bonuses and allowances. (Based on Morgan McKinley Irish Salary Calculator)

BTW, if you are interested in becoming a Process Operator in the Pharmaceutical or Medical Device manufacturing industries check out our Conversion Course into Pharmaceutical Manufacturing

Industries and Work Environment

The work environment for a Process Operator can vary widely depending on the industry but often involves working in industrial facilities such as factories, power plants, or refineries. The work can include exposure to potentially hazardous materials and requires strict adherence to safety protocols. The role may require working in shifts – including nights, weekends, and holidays – to ensure continuous operation of production processes.

Process Operators can be found in a wide range of industries, including:

  • Chemical Manufacturing: Overseeing the production of chemicals – operating and managing chemical processes to ensure precise chemical mixes and reactions.
  • Food and Beverage Production: Operating processes involved in making food and drinks, from mixing ingredients to packaging. Ensuring that production processes comply with health and safety standards, maintaining the cleanliness and integrity of food products.
  • Oil and Gas: Monitoring the complex processes involved in extracting and processing fuels, crucial for energy production.
  • Pharmaceutical Manufacturing: Ensuring that medicines are produced consistently and safely by adhering to strict industry regulations and stringent quality control requirements.
  • Power Generation: Operating machinery involved in generating electricity, such as turbines and reactors.
  • Plastic Manufacturing: Operating and managing the processes of plastic manufacturing, ensuring precise chemical mixes and reactions.
  • Water Treatment: Operating systems that purify and distribute water, ensuring it meets health and safety standards.
  • Mining and Mineral Processing: Operating and handling equipment for extracting and processing minerals, focusing on efficiency and safety. May be referred to as Metallurgical/Mineral Process Operators.
  • Cosmetics: Operating the process for the production of beauty products, ensuring consistency, quality, and compliance with health standards.

Key Responsibilities

Ensuring Operational Efficiency

  • Observing Gauges and Instruments: Regularly check the status of production equipment by monitoring gauges, dials and other indicators to ensure that everything is operating as it should.
  • Continuous Monitoring: Constantly monitor the production process and making necessary changes to maintain optimal operation of machinery and equipment. This helps prevent downtime and ensures that production targets are met.
  • Adjusting Controls: Make necessary adjustments to control panels and equipment settings to optimize production efficiency and meet product specifications.
  • Troubleshooting: They are skilled in identifying and diagnosing issues with machinery or the production process. Quick troubleshooting and problem-solving minimizes delays and reduce the risk of prolonged operational disruptions.

Maintaining Product Quality

  • Quality Control: By overseeing the production process and conducting regular quality checks, Process Operators ensure that the output meets the required standards. This is particularly crucial in industries like pharmaceuticals, food and beverage, and chemicals, where product quality directly impacts consumer safety.
  • Adjustments and Calibration: They adjust the machinery and process parameters to correct any deviations from the desired product specifications, ensuring that the final product consistently meets quality standards.

Quality Assurance

  • Maintaining Records: Keep detailed records of quality tests, adjustments made and any deviations from standard operating procedures. This documentation is crucial for compliance and process improvement.

Maintenance

  • Routine Maintenance: Perform basic maintenance tasks to ensure that machinery and equipment are in good working order. This could include cleaning, lubricating and making minor adjustments.

Ensuring Safety and Compliance

  • Safety Protocols: Process Operators adhere to strict safety guidelines to protect themselves, their colleagues, and the environment. Their expertise and vigilance help prevent accidents and incidents that could result from equipment malfunction or improper handling of materials.
  • Regulatory Compliance: They ensure that operations comply with local, national, and industry-specific regulations, including environmental and health standards. This is essential for legal compliance and maintaining the company’s reputation.

Cost Efficiency, Waste Reduction and Process Improvement

  • Optimizing Production: Through their intimate knowledge of the process and equipment, Process Operators can optimize production methods to maximize output while minimizing input costs.
  • Reducing Waste: By fine-tuning the production process, they play a key role in reducing waste and improving the sustainability of operations. This not only saves costs but also aligns with environmental and sustainability goals.
  • Suggesting Improvements: Propose ideas to improve production efficiency, reduce waste, or enhance safety. Process Operators’ hands-on experience gives them valuable insights into potential areas for improvement.

Communication and Coordination

  • Collaborating with Team Members: Work closely with other operators, supervisors, and maintenance personnel to ensure that production goals are met and to discuss any potential improvements to the process.
  • Handover and Reporting: At the end of a shift, communicate any important information about equipment status, ongoing issues or other critical points to the next shift to ensure continuity and efficiency.

Watch this Video of a Process Operator’s Role!

For a look at the role of a Process Operator (described by someone actually on the job), check out this video from Chevron.

Skills and Qualifications

A successful Process Operator typically has a combination of the following:

Educational Background

  • Secondary School, High School Diploma or Equivalent: Most positions require at least a secondary school or high school qualification. This is crucial for understanding basic principles that are further developed through specific training and certifications.
  • Vocational Training or Associate Degree: Some employers prefer candidates with post-secondary education in a field related to process technology, mechanical engineering, or industrial operations. Although, we should point out that there is no fixed rule on this. It really depends on the employer, the industry, and how urgently the employer needs to hire somebody.

Specific Skills and Certifications

  • Technical Skills: Understanding of machinery and equipment used in the specific industry, ability to read and interpret gauges and monitors, and familiarity with the production process.
  • Certifications: Certifications can vary widely by industry but may include specific machinery operation certificates, safety training (such as OSHA standards) and hazardous material handling. In highly regulated industries, such as pharmaceuticals or food production, you may need to have GMP or GLP certifications.
  • Computer Literacy: Basic to intermediate computer skills are often necessary for operating modern industrial equipment, data entry and documentation.

Soft Skills

  • Attention to Detail: Precision is crucial in monitoring processes, adjusting settings and ensuring quality standards are met.
  • Problem-Solving Skills: Ability to quickly identify problems, analyze potential causes and implement solutions is vital for minimizing downtime and maintaining production efficiency.
  • Communication Skills: Effective communication with team members, supervisors and maintenance staff is essential for coordinating operations and promptly addressing issues.
  • Adaptability: Process Operators often work in fast-paced environments that require the ability to adapt to changes in production demands or process configurations.
  • Teamwork: Working as part of a team is common so being able to collaborate effectively is important for overall productivity and workplace harmony.
  • Safety Consciousness: A strong commitment to safety protocols and practices to protect oneself, colleagues and the environment.

Advancement Opportunities

  • Senior Operator Positions: Many Process Operators can advance to senior or lead operator positions, where they take on more responsibility for overseeing operations, mentoring newer operators, and contributing to process improvement initiatives.
  • Supervisory Roles: With experience and demonstrated leadership ability, Process Operators may move into supervisory roles, managing teams of operators and being responsible for a section or department within the facility.
  • Specialist Roles: In some industries, there are opportunities to specialize in a particular type of process or technology, becoming the go-to expert within the company for that area.
  • Operations Management: Further along in their career, Process Operators might advance into operations management roles, where they are responsible for the overall performance of a production facility, including budgeting, maintenance and production planning.
  • Cross-Functional Roles: Experience as a Process Operator provides a broad understanding of production processes that can be valuable in related fields such as quality assurance, safety management and project management within the company.

Process Operator vs Process Technician

The difference between these two used to be very clear-cut but over the years the boundaries have gotten rather blurry.

After reading hundreds of job descriptions, here is our take on the current differences (but do keep in mind that we are generalising and there are always exceptions)…

Operator Role

An operator’s role tends to place heavy emphasis on strictly following processes, procedures and systems. Knowledge of how the process works isn’t generally a minimum entry requirement for an operator role.

The job role has usually been designed, simplified and standardised by industrial, manufacturing or process engineers, often with input from Quality Assurance. This can allow inexperienced people to be hired and quickly trained on the job.

Here are some typical responsibilities:

  • Follow manufacturing procedures and production systems
  • Assembly and testing of medical devices
  • Manufacture of cable assemblies and electrical kits
  • Operating production equipment
  • Conduct process inspections and record results
  • Writing/providing input for operating procedures
  • Input data to a computer
  • Materials/warehouse support
  • Dispatch of orders

Technician Role

The job title “technician” implies the person has technical, practical and tacit knowledge of the subject that has taken time and effort to acquire. This knowledge goes way beyond the surface level.

They typically have technical acumen and understand how manufacturing processes work as well as how they fit together with other processes. Technicians often have some degree of autonomy at work and will have to exercise good judgment while doing their job.

Here are some typical responsibilities:

  • Setup, startup or operate and shut down complex plant machinery and/or use software to run computer-operated processes on the factory floor
  • Operate the control room for large industrial plants or refineries and monitor the output of the process. Diagnose and fix routine problems
  • Monitor the performance of plant equipment and process conditions, quickly diagnose and troubleshoot routine or minor problems
  • Perform inspection, cleaning, and maintenance of the equipment in accordance with SOPs
  • Read and monitor flow meters and temperature and pressure gauges, etc and take routine readings on process variables and material properties within the process such as density, viscosity, particle-size distribution, flow rates, pressures, pH levels, cell count (in biomanufacturing) and temperatures, and make adjustments when required
  • In some cases, the role may require a high degree of manual dexterity as the job might require switching out pipes or machinery when changing from one product run to another within the facility

Educational requirements

Having read hundreds of technician and operator job descriptions, here is our take on the difference in typical educational job requirements between the two roles…

Operator job educational requirements

  • Minimum of a Leaving Cert qualification and/or a minimum of 2-3 years industry experience.
  • Generally needs knowledge of GMPs

Technician job educational requirements

  • Requires an Irish NFQ level 6 or level 7* university-accredited qualification in a relevant engineering, technical or laboratory science field. Usually a certificate or diploma but in some cases, this could be an ordinary level 7 degree (especially for laboratory technician roles).
  • Or 2 to 3 years of relevant technical work experience in lieu of a qualification
  • Knowledge of relevant regulations

equivalent to level 4, 5 or 6 under the England/ Wales/ Northern Ireland FHEQ

Working as a Process Operator

Process Operators may spend a lot of time at a control desk in a large industrial plant or they could be on their feet on the plant floor. Even when they are operating or monitoring a machine, they are still standing and alert. Many work in controlled environments with restricted access.

Process Operators can work:

  • outside (e.g. petrochemicals, oil refineries, fertilizer manufacturing)
  • within a hygienic environment (e.g. food & beverage, beer, cheese)
  • within a cleanroom environment  (e.g. pharmaceutical, biopharmaceutical or medical device manufacturing)

In some cases, the role may require a high degree of manual dexterity as the job might require switching out pipes or machinery when changing from one product run to another within the facility.

Depending on the environment, personal protective gear (including masks, cleanroom gowns, clothing, footwear, and gloves) is required. This is both for their own safety and to maintain the integrity of the product by avoiding contamination.

In biopharmaceutical manufacturing, Process Operators could work in:

  • Upstream operations – stages of biopharmaceutical processing up to the cell culture or fermentation process that is used to make the target proteins
  • Downstream operations – stages of processing that come after cell culture or fermentation. These stages include separation and purification to achieve the required drug product
  • Manufacturing, science & technology (MSAT) – support operations with activities such as continuous process improvement, implementing new technologies and troubleshooting
  • Fill finish/packaging – final stages of the manufacturing process where the active agent is prepared into its final form, before being filled and sealed within containers.

Process Operator’s Salary and Benefits

Salary Range

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