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Bridging the safety experience gap with industrial automation to guide future decisions

Aug. 12, 2021
In this installment of Automation Zone, learn how to make safety knowledge accessible for good.
As a growing number of experienced engineers leave the oil, gas, and chemicals industry, there is a need to provide a mechanism for ensuring that their knowledge can be retained. The latest generation of automated safety systems are helping future generations to access this knowledge to enable them to safely manage and optimize plant performance.
About the Author: Luis Duran

When it comes to safety, probably no sector is more highly attuned than the oil, gas and chemicals industry. Handling massive quantities of hazardous substances in very complex processes, which could have catastrophic consequences under abnormal conditions, oil and gas production and processing plants, refineries, and chemical plants operate under some of the most stringent safety measures and systems found in the sector. Yet despite this, incidents continue to happen, proving that when it comes to accident prevention, risks can only ever be minimized, not eliminated.

Today, one major challenge for companies in this area has been the ongoing impact of a skills shortage started during the global recession of 2008 when many chose to either scale down or completely stop the recruitment of graduates and apprentices as way of coping with the downturn in oil prices. With around 20% of employees in the industry aged 55 or older, it has been difficult to replace retiring workers, resulting in a steady drain of experience, including in the vital area of process safety.

These challenges have been further compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to many companies making job cuts to help save costs. According to a 2020 survey of oil and gas workers jointly carried out by data analytics company Broadbean Technologies and recruitment specialist OilandGasjobsearch.com, 42% of respondents had been laid off, with a further 36% contemplating switching to another industry as the effects of fluctuating oil prices and reduced investment continue to bite. 

For plant operators, this ongoing skills shortage has a particular effect on process safety. With the downward trend in the availability of experienced older workers, companies need to retain their knowledge and ensure that less experienced workers have the necessary competence to recognize potentially unsafe conditions and take appropriate measures in the event of an emergency.

An added complication is the age of oil and gas assets, which may be using automation systems that may either need to be updated to reflect changing potential hazards or upgraded with the latest technologies.

Making safety accessible

The challenges associated with the shifting skills set in particular have seen suppliers developing new ways to make safety more accessible. While traditionally discussions around safety were centered around the mysterious worlds of process and safety controllers and inputs and outputs, often spoken in the daunting language of Functional Safety Management-related jargon and acronyms, the changing skills profile of today’s plant staff have seen a shift toward making safety more visible and functions more easily understood.

Part of this shift has been a greater emphasis on ensuring the effective design of automated process safety systems that can help assist plant employees in identifying and preventing potentially dangerous conditions before they can escalate.

Information in context

The main purpose of an automated safety system is to enable operators to manage the challenges that are front of them. As such, information needs to be provided in the context of the current situation that can be easily retrieved and shared (if required) in a variety of formats suited to the person or persons who need to view it. For example, while a process engineer may be interested in graphs and readings showing fluctuating temperatures in a particular process, a maintenance engineer looking for the root cause may be more interested in the maintenance history of the instruments or plant equipment involved. Both will need to be able to find the information and use it to collaborate, whether they are on the same site or based at different locations.

Automation Zone

This article is part of our monthly Automation Zone column. Read more from our monthly Automation Zone series.

The ability to share everything from operational data through to diagnostics in real-time opens a wealth of new possibilities. For operators, it enables access to current data plus supporting information if required that can be used to make informed decisions that can help optimize plant performance and safety.

With remote communications enabling the data to be shared offsite, for example with subject matter experts in a remote support center, there is the added reassurance of competent support in the event of an unfamiliar situation. By enabling remote staff to see what is happening on a particular site, the time and cost of dispatching someone to site is eliminated. The benefits that this can offer are particularly evident in situations such as the current pandemic, where the movement of staff between sites has been restricted by additional COVID safety protocols, lockdown, and social distancing.

Another requirement is the need for the operator to be able to respond quickly and effectively in the event of an abnormal condition, alarm, or emergency. With potentially hundreds of different situations from all over the plant, the system must be able to draw the operator’s attention to the location and nature of the problem and provide them with the information needed to solve it. Features such as visual and audible alarms can help to direct the operator’s attention to a potential area of concern so that it can be promptly addressed.

The system should also incorporate protection to prevent the operator from inadvertently creating a dangerous situation or making an existing one worse. Based on hazard identification and mitigation information from measures carried out at the design stage, the system should feature layers of protection that will stop the operator from performing certain actions and present them with alternatives.

Simplification through integration

Another area where developments has taken place has been in the integration of process and safety controllers. The IEC 61508 and IEC 61511 standards state that safety and non-safety functions can be integrated within the same system provided that “it can be shown that the implementation of the safety and non-safety functions is sufficiently independent (i.e., that the failure of a non-safety related function does not cause a dangerous failure of the safety related functions).”

While using separate systems for process control and safety, integration under the same automation environment offers several advantages. Foremost amongst these are the benefits of having a single environment sharing the same operating and maintenance principles and technologies, including features such as a common HMI and consistent engineering tools. ABB’s System 800xA High Integrity Distributed Control System as an integrated safety and process control system, for example, provides a single platform for managing tasks such as commissioning and upgrading, significantly reducing the scope for error arising from having to train and work on two separate systems.

Preparing for the future

The wide range of varying factors at play in a typical process plant make it impossible for an automated safety system by itself to eliminate the risk of an accident. Instead, its prime function needs to be to minimize the risk of an accident by taking every action necessary to avoid it.

An effective safety system is one that recognizes the ever-changing nature of risk and adapts accordingly. As such, it needs to be part of an overall safety strategy that recognizes that safety does not stand still.

A site’s safety KPIs should be constantly updated to ensure they reflect any changes in the process, with any changes being incorporated into the automated safety system. This can include tracking any near misses and incorporating the resulting learning into the design of the system to ensure that they are not repeated in the future.

The system should also be tested and maintained to a defined schedule, with any work being carried out by competent personnel, either using on-site staff, or, where necessary, suitably qualified third-party resources, including the system supplier. Carrying proof testing on a regular basis will provide the reassurance that the system will be able to respond in the event of an alarm or emergency situation, with any remedial work able to be carried out if any failures are identified. 

But the key success factor will be having the ability to capture changes in operating conditions – the realities of maintaining and troubleshooting the process within the context of the original design criteria that established the original process hazards and operational analysis – and warn the asset owner of deviations before they become critical.

Protecting against the unforeseen

While the digitalization of the oil and gas industry has brought a raft of benefits, it has also increased the scope for potential cyberattacks. Statistics from the global cybersecurity specialist Kaspersky reveal that the level of cyberattacks on the industry has been rising, with the number of malicious attacks on industrial control system computers increasing from 36.3% in 2019 to 37.8% in the first half of 2020.

In this regard, protecting an automated safety system against malicious attack demands the same mindset as designing a site safety policy. By identifying every potential area of risk, a strategy can then be devised to prevent them, utilizing measures such as access control, write protection, competency-related role conditions, and audit trails to identify when any changes were made.

Again, having a single integrated safety and process control environment can help to simplify the process of security, enabling updates such as malware patches to be carried out from one place under a consistent security management system and processes.

Making the world a safer place

By providing a continually evolving environment where knowledge and ongoing experience can be combined in way that can be readily accessed and understood, automated safety systems provide a vital tool for helping operators to do their jobs more effectively.

This story originally appeared in the August 2021 issue of Plant Services. Subscribe to Plant Services here.

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