Culture, Technology Make Safety Job One

Wednesday, November 20, 2013 @ 02:11 PM gHale

By Ellen Fussell Policastro
While nobody can deny technology is the key to any operation today, the human element plays a major role in determining safety factors — from design to operations and maintenance.

Although process safety incidents have dramatically dropped over the past 15 years, the infrequent incidents that do occur are more severe and costly. In fact, the annual loss comes to $20 billion in the process industry for incidents — 80 percent of which were preventable.

SHARP Safety Focus for Stamping Firm
Case History: Culture Changes; Incidents Drop
Safety Success: Tea Maker gets SHARP
Safety Training Grants Awarded

How corporate culture, combined with technology, can help humans make the right safety decisions was the topic of a Control Engineering webcast Tuesday entitled “Human Factors and their Impact on Plant Safety,” sponsored by ABB.

“We are fascinated with technology, and while we cannot ignore human factors, we should take advantage of the role technology can play to reduce the occurrence and effect of human factors,” said Luis Duran, safety product marketing manager for ABB control technologies in Houston, who participated in the webcast with editor and founder, Gregory Hale.

In spite of the high degree of automation, operating training, and behavior modification, the number of incidents due to human error is still troubling.

“We know it’s not the result of poor training or an incompetent management system. It isn’t unreliable machines or human information. Still, human errors in judgment occur in 1 out of 100 incidents,” Hale said.

So the question is this: If all these good things are in place, why is operator error the most significant contribution in the root cause analysis of incidents? “The answer is we’ve reached a saturation point in the automation system,” Hale said. “With saturation comes human overload. That, coupled with mental stress in the control room, spells out a recipe for disaster.”

Top Ten Human Factor Issues
1. Organizational change and transition management
2. Staffing levels/lowering the amount of staff that are working at the area
3. Training, competence, and supervision
4. Fatigue
5. Alarm handling
6. Compliance with safety-critical procedures
7. Safety culture and blame game
8. Communication
9. Ergonomics/design of interfaces and health ergonomics
10. Maintenance error

Look at the glaring example of a lack of communications that led to the 1988 Piper Alpha oil-rig disaster in the North Sea, where 167 workers lost their lives. Or take a look at today’s convoluted alarm systems; operators many times cannot decide which alarms need immediate response and which ones can wait. “There’s also a safety culture of blame and finger-pointing, which is detrimental to the goal of safety first,” Hale said. “The best environment is one in which people work together toward a common goal to ensure safe operations.”

Corporate culture is vital to ensuring a strong safety environment. “The message can’t just be, ‘Let’s be safe,’” Hale said. “There has to be a framework, and the message has to come from the top and filter down: Safety is job one. Everyone has to understand the risk involved and what the plan is in the event of a safety incident. In an inherently dangerous environment, there has to be clear assessment of where the risk lies.”

“Organizations with a vigorous safety culture are in a more secure position to avoid accidents and are better prepared when an accident happens. Plus, when following safety disciplines, manufacturers become more productive, which adds to the bottom line,” Hale said.

Technology Steps Up
Technology can play an important role to reduce the occurrence of human factors. Users need to take advantage of technology’s contribution to ergonomics, display design, alarm handling, training simulators, and the maintenance workplace, Duran said.

Even though we have a lot of technology at our disposal, the key is to understand the risk of interfacing technology with human beings. “Operators are left to understand on their own what’s going on in the control room from many sources. But there is not enough information to determine an abnormal condition,” Duran said.

“We need more effective displays that are easier to understand,” he said. “One example would be the design of the operator’s physical environment, where we can change lighting to improve awareness of a situation. So the operator is more alert and able to handle stress within the plant.”

A majority of process automation systems rely on graphics. That means graphic design becomes critical to effectively respond to plant conditions. The use of color, for instance, can make or break an appropriate response. Color is useful, but too much color can be overwhelming and confusing. One effective way to improve this is to follow the principles of high-performance HMI. “Rather than just being presented with data, the operator sees more information in context,” Duran said. “This eliminates distractions, such as excessive or inconsistent use of color.”

Rules to Reduce Incidents
• You need proactive asset management.
• You must have written operating procedures, and the must be clear and visible. You can’t write them and put them up in a closet some place. And everyone has to live up to them.
• Make sure your HAZOP plan is up to date. What happened at a plant 15 years ago may have changed over the years. So you have to update your layers of protection analysis and alarm strategy. You must do a hazard assessment afterward — every time. You don’t want the next incident to be worse than it was before.
• Manufacturers need to use integrated and control safety system technology and benefit from it. The more you get out of it, the more it will help you ensure a safe operating environment.
• It has to be a culture thing from top to bottom.

“Just last week I saw a before and after case where designers had put color graphics on a system because they could, but it was too mind-boggling,” Hale said. “They then redesigned with more gray-scale background so the colors they used meant something. The front-end red meant what red normally means, and the green meant what green normally means. The improvement in eye-strain alone was incredible with the new design.”

Of course traditional HMI gives you good results. But the numbers show a 96 percent rate for handling abnormal situations with high-performance HMI. That’s a five-fold increase for detecting abnormal situations before alarms occur.

Alarm Management, Simulation Training
“We compare a multitude of alarms going off to crying babies, but we need to know which baby started crying first,” Duran said. “In a typical plant we have more than a handful of babies crying for attention.” We see a similar situation with graphic displays in DCS technology; real estate on the alarm panel is precious. So too many alarms can make conditions worse for plant operators. It’s important to be able to identify nuisance alarms. A standard that can help is ANSI/ISA-18.2-2009, Management of Alarm Systems for the Process Industries. It addresses the development, design, installation, and management of alarm systems in the process industries, including multiple work processes throughout the alarm system lifecycle.

Simulated training for control room operators is also imperative Hale said. “I relate it to training for a pilot. They go in for frequent training, and they’re hit with every kind of potential disaster. In the real world, they’ll most likely never encounter most of the disaster scenarios they face in training. But when something does happen, they’re ready.”

Integrated Control Brings Relief
The biggest advantage of using integrated control and safety systems is they eliminate sources of human error by designing common-cause failures out of the system from the beginning, Duran said. An effective integrated control and safety system should provide guidance about corrective action plans and report documentation that requires attention. It should ensure operations and maintenance teams stay informed of a status before equipment is disabled, Duran said. Performing integrated testing rather than doing a factory acceptance test is more efficient because it concentrates on product-specific requirements. The maintenance costs and product lifecycle costs are also lower in these systems. “All these elements go back to maintenance and designed best practices,” Duran said.

“An aspect I see becoming more and more important is systematic capabilities,” Duran said. Systematic capabilities are elements that help the user identify and avoid potential errors and follow best practices to ensure they implement applications that satisfy safety requirements. They’re an important part of assessing a system’s capabilities to meet particular safety integrity levels. The custom programming ensures it is following the vendor’s safety practices.

Integrated control and safety systems also require competent personnel. That’s where safety standards come in to properly identify the competencies personnel need according to their function in the plant. To reinforce competence, safety standards have introduced methods to enable a change in work methods.

In the grand scheme of things, it takes more than one person or piece of technology to solve safety issues. “It’s a job in which everybody has to be involved,” Hale said. “Of course, one person is probably responsible for the whole safety picture. But everyone should know what the safety plan is and what their role is.” Whether there’s a big or small incident, or even a near miss, there has to be a root-cause analysis. “When an incident occurs or you have a near miss, you can’t say, ‘We’ll focus on that later.’ Later never comes.”

Teaching and understanding scenarios that could have gone wrong have to be elements of the job, Hale said. “If this kind of stringent teaching had occurred in the past, it probably could have saved lives and billions of dollars.”
Ellen Fussell Policastro is a freelance writer in Raleigh, NC. Her email is

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.