By Gregory Hale
There is a dichotomy of sorts going on across the industry: Digitalization is taking hold where manufacturers are connecting devices to garner all kinds of information to create more informed decision-making and increase productivity, but the fear is process safety management could be left in the technological dust.

With 89 percent of companies in a Gartner Report saying digital is embedded in all business growth strategies, where does process safety management play? It may be part of a plan, but it is most likely lagging behind. Digitalization may help production become more productive and profitable, but process safety management may be following behind. As more processes become digital, safety needs to move into that realm.

To that end, what does digital safety look like? There is no doubt the goal for process safety managers is the same, but how they get there will most likely change.

“We’re in a digital world, a tremendous technology growth and spurt,” said Steve Elliott, Senior Offer Director – Safety and Critical Control at Schneider Electric. “We don’t have to convince people that Industry 4.0 is real. We don’t have to convince them of the value. What we have to do is to convince them that it is applicable in terms of process safety management. 

“Digitization is the conversion of doing compliance reports, recording your safety performance, doing inspections, proof tests, periodic revalidation, operator rounds, taking those pieces of paper, and converting them on to the computer so it becomes electronic. Then we added digitalization, which is using digital technologies to add value to the existing data or the existing process.”

Digital Transformation
The industry is now going into a third phase of digitalization and that is digital transformation where a manufacturer can use digital strategies to transform business behavior and create new business value.

“Safety is almost a victim of its own success,” Elliott said. “What I mean by that is the safety systems, the processes, procedures, they’re all there otherwise companies wouldn’t be approved to operate. They’re there for a reason; people don’t necessarily touch them. It’s not the first thing you would think of changing to create new value.

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“Therefore, a lot of the safety initiative drivers may be lagging behind because people are trying to prove the value in non-safety applications. They want the confidence that what they’re doing has a direct impact and benefit to the business.”

As the rest of the organization goes digital, safety may not be digitally sync’d, but it still plays because of the built in protection layers. Those protection layers are the barriers in defense such as the basic process control system, operator alarms, safety instrumented systems, mechnical relief devices, operators adhering to and applying procedures and standards.

“We interfere with those protection layers and we may weaken them,” Elliott said. “We may put a bypass on. We may suppress an alarm. We may put a controller in manual. We may defer a proof test. There are activities where humans can directly impact the safety of that asset. Digital can make risk visible, so people understand the consequences of their action, what they have to do or how long they have to do it.”

Increasing Process Safety Management Visibility
“The first part of digitalization and digital safety is making safety visible,” Elliott said. “Not just an alarm on a screen. But giving visual clues, new ways of presenting information where people understand the operational risk, the level of risk that they have. Is the risk tolerable? Are we carrying too much risk? This whole idea of bringing data together, making it visual so people can see and understand and then act is the first place I see safety and digital coming together.”

Safety and digital will come together, but when you go to a plant, it is an entirely different story.

“Usually anytime you talk about disruptive innovation or digital trends or any technology trends, it’s usually followed by the statement: Safety is out of scope,” said Chris Stogner, Triconex Safety & Critical Control Leader at Schneider Electric. “Right now, Advanced Physical Layer (APL) is an emerging digital trend. We asked users what do you think about it and are you planning to do it? Very few are aware of it. (APL is a move to make measurement devices Ethernet-based and use different protocol stacks, powered over Ethernet and used in safe and hazardous locations.) There’s somewhat of a disconnect between corporate level engineers who are forward thinking versus the plant engineers dealing with day-to-day issues. At the same time, the plant people identify their biggest issue is they are resource challenged and they will have to eventually adopt some of these things just to survive.”

No matter what happens, safety jobs will not go away, but they will have to change There will still be compliance reporting, KPIs will remain, along with metrics, and still do forms of investigation. But there will be easier, more efficient ways of doing it.

“I don’t know that they’re making a correlation between their daily working environment with the role that the safety system is playing now,” Stogner said. “We showed a diagram of how a system with APL could look like to one safety professional. This was the first time he had heard of the concept, but he sits back in his chair and he is thinking. Then after deliberation, he finally comes up and says he doesn’t like it. Why? Because they all know how to work on 4-20 mA, they know how to troubleshoot it, they know how to install it, and they know how to maintain it. When you use this Ethernet digital-based system, connected to sensors and everything else, it totally changes the skill set that’s needed for these guys. They have to become IT experts as opposed to instrument experts.

Human Transformation
“You’re never going to get the digital transformation unless you have the human transformation that comes along with it. There has to be a reskilling. First you have to change the mindset to get them to accept these concepts in the first place. But then lastly, they’re going to have to be re-skilled to be able to actually get the value that the digital transformation actually is intending to deliver,” Stogner said.

Part of that value is understanding what good looks like. It is now possible to look at the wealth of data associated with the safety performance of an asset. There is no reason why you can’t run artificial intelligence or machine learning to find out the status of an asset or dissect a near miss incident.

“Some people are starting to do that now to get a baseline for the operating facility,” Elliott said. “It could give you an indication that says you need to pay attention to the plant in Louisiana because there’s a potential safety incident starting to occur based on historical data. But what that needs is somebody who can relate to what the process was doing at the time. What was the potentially unsafe issue? A wrong feedstock or an exothermic reaction, or poor feedstock that was causing a different type of reaction to happen? Those more mature companies are looking to see if there are ways and means of using and learning and improving what they have.”

Multiple Advantages
Digital safety over the long haul will end up being more effective to garner more data, but also offset the lack of human capital.

“On a day-to-day basis today, it’s not going to make them produce more product,” Stogner said. “But over time it will. I look at car insurance as an example. That’s risk management. It doesn’t make your car get better gas mileage. But car insurance companies create policies based off how old you are and what you’re driving record is. They have applications pulling all this data and they can see how fast you drive, how hard you brake, how many miles you actually drive in a year. You can use that data to address what the actual risk profile is for the driver. Take those same concepts and apply what the actual risk profile is for your plant by letting machines help because the human doesn’t possibly have the ability to calculate all that.”

In reality, process safety management is a domain expertise that is narrow, but a mile deep. With fewer people possessing that knowledge in the industry, and a generational shift occurring, manufacturers need to future proof their enterprise to where it not only is taking advantage of the technology, but workers are also using it and applying basic principles in a new way to keep plants safe.

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