Managing alarms, managing competency

Equipment, people both need attention to get process plants running effectively


In the process industries, alarm systems are a vital tool, allowing plant operators to identify escalating abnormal situations and take action to recover. Such occurrences can quickly lead to personnel danger, environmental excursions, and commercial loss.

Good alarm management practices are essential in a proactive control environment. When operators are forced to deal with hundreds of alarms at any given point in time, there is increased risk to safety, not to mention process efficiency. Distributed control system (DCS) technology identifies alarms but employs a very reactive approach. As such, industrial organizations need effective solutions for ensuring operator competence.

Today’s operating challenges

Plant control rooms can experience up to 4,000 alarms per operator, per day. Making sense of this is a challenge for operators running automation systems. Alarm proliferation has created additional stress and increased workload, and nuisance alarms distract operators instead of directing them to corrective actions.

The success of any control room operator is dependent on understanding plant issues and being able to quickly respond with the correct action to solve the problem. Operators require human-machine interface (HMI) graphics that are easily understood and indicate when conditions are changing, as well as quick, easy access to supporting documentation. Furthermore, they need an alarm system that is informational and timely.

An overall reduction in the number of operators in the process industries requires existing operators to know more of the plant and be able to operate more effectively.

Finally, there is increasing pressure on safety and environmental performance and this, in turn, requires higher operator performance. In the United States, for example, there is now legislation requiring proper consideration of human factors for both pipelines and oil exploration off the continental shelf. This legislation explicitly requires oil production companies to adhere to American Petroleum Institute (API) Recommended Practice 75 (API RP 75).

The U.S Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement requires operators to develop and implement safety and environmental management systems (SEMS) for oil and gas and sulphur operations on the outer continental shelf. This rulemaking will incorporate in its entirety and make mandatory API RP 75.

Need for improved performance

Operator performance has an impact on both safety and profitability. If operators are plagued by nuisance alarms, they’re probably not operating the plant at peak performance. Nuisance alarms include those that annunciate excessively or unnecessarily, don’t return to normal after they’ve been correctly addressed, or are irrelevant to the current process state.

However, if the operator’s competencies are not high enough, they are more likely to make mistakes in carrying out alarm-related procedures or may not communicate effectively with other members of the operations team—again leading to errors.

During normal operations, it is desirable to optimize the unit to reduce costs, minimize energy usage, increase yields, and increase feed rates. Highly competent operators will be able to do this well and also mentor their less experienced colleagues. Overall operating efficiency therefore increases.

According to research by the Abnormal Situation Management (ASM) Consortium, the primary causes of major upsets or abnormal situations in industrial plants are 40% due to human error, 40% due to equipment failure, and 20% due to other factors. In addition, the studies show operating out of range causes equipment problems approximately 76% of the time. This is also a human error. The ASM research concluded that human performance contributes to 70% to 80% of all abnormal situations at process plants.

Importance of competency

In an industrial environment, the plant operator’s response to alarms is crucial in preventing a process upset from escalating into a more serious event. The definition of competency as it relates to operators has three key elements: knowledge, skills, and behavior (See Figure 3).

Low operator competency levels lead to a number of problems, which, in turn, create low morale. Problem areas can be higher incident rates or lower profitability. Low morale aggravates the situation, as the operations team will be less willing to undertake extra activities, propose improvements, and support change.

Poor competency in the operations team can also result in products not being ready on time or being off spec. Customer satisfaction may then suffer. Moreover, unsatisfactory operations team performance can lead to higher insurance premiums as upsets and environmental emissions rise.

There are many methods to building operator competency, such as attending a lecture, reading a book, watching a demonstration, participating in a discussion, etc. However, in building a competency program, it is desirable to focus on methods that maximize the speed of learning and overall retention. It is also important to ensure operators are taught how to carry out activities that occur infrequently, such as unit start-up or shutdown and managing major upsets.

It is also essential that the overall operator training and competency management program be well managed. Such a program will be sponsored at the right level in the organization, and driven by business goals and an assessment of required operator competencies. The program should employ well-structured selection and training techniques to hire people with the right innate abilities and build their capabilities to the required levels, as well as utilize training methods that maximize retention rates and leverage opportunities for ad-hoc training.

Crucial to an effective operator training solution are an integrated suite of tools to manage training as well as assess operator and operations team performance, processes to improve competency management strategies to reflect team and individual competency gaps and respond to plant incidents, and procedures to ensure competency programs and tools are kept up-to-date as the plant and operations practices change.

Evaluating skill levels

The inherent dangers in process facilities, with the manufacture, storage, and transport of toxic, corrosive, and/or explosive elements, create environments with “accidents waiting to happen.” To reduce risk and increase productivity, companies must certify that plant operators have the required knowledge and skills to safely carry out their duties and ensure all equipment is in safe working order.

When it comes to identifying inadequate operator skill levels, the first and most obvious indicator is that operators cannot explain the process thoroughly. This may be particularly true for more complex unit operations such as reactors and complicated separation columns. Regrettably, these are often the units most critical to process safety and economic performance. Poor understanding impedes the operator’s ability to troubleshoot the unit when things go wrong, leading to higher risks to profitability and safety.

Poorly trained operations teams will often execute procedures inconsistently as they have not been properly instructed in the right way to conduct each procedure. Furthermore, they may not be able to detect when procedures are going wrong and respond to them correctly.

Low levels of competency will also be exhibited by poor use of the control system. Operators may not be familiar with the best ways to navigate the system, or do not understand basic controls well. They may then put regulatory controllers in manual frequently, or disable alarms that are needed. Low competency levels can also be shown through incorrect use of advanced controls.

Less capable operators will not be able to detect and respond to upsets. Good operators will employ a proactive operating style where they are regularly monitoring units to detect and respond to problems. Less competent operators will wait for alarms to go off before they take action, and they will then struggle to identify the cause and take corrective actions. A good operator may take two to four adjustments to manage a typical upset, but a less capable one will make many more adjustments to get the plant stable and back to profitable operation again.

Competent operators typically make only a small number of changes, whereas less capable operators will tend to make a large number of small adjustments. Competent operators will monitor the process using trends; less competent operators use flow graphics. Furthermore, poor operations team competency can be noted by each shift running the plant in a different way. This can be observed as each operations team changes process setpoints and operating conditions shortly after their shift starts.

Lastly, good operators will faithfully complete the ongoing tasks essential to ensuring plant efficiency and reliability, such as routine asset maintenance, switchover of equipment, sampling, rounds, etc.

Value of advanced technology

To be successful when things go wrong, plant operators need a well-executing alarm system. The system should only activate the alarms required to solve a specific issue. It needs to be informative and have links to other resources if the operator requires further explanation.

Recent advancements in alarm management technology enable process plants to prevent alarm floods and “chatter,” and reduce operator loading. Such technology offers the latest tools to help minimize unplanned outages, and to reduce safety incidents. This frees the operator to focus on real production problems.

Good alarm system documentation and enforcement capabilities also allow operators to document the reasons and actions for every alarm. This information is then available on the DCS as an instant help for any alarm. Once the alarm system is functioning correctly, the operator will utilize it by immediately responding to alarms and confirming the action required to solve the issue. This includes identifying common alarm issues such as chattering, standing nuisance alarms, etc.

Another benefit of a well-functioning alarm system is that operators will spend more time monitoring process operations and less time responding to alarm noise. This is key to improving plant efficiency, increasing throughput, reducing asset management costs, and avoiding unnecessary downtime.

Solutions for effective training

To reduce risks and increase productivity, industrial organizations must certify that plant operators have the required knowledge and skills to safely carry out their duties and ensure all equipment is in safe working order. This is a requirement that can only be met by effective operator training solutions.

An integrated operator training program starts with business requirements, commitment/sponsorship of site management, and a clear organizational approach to the overall program. Next is a thorough definition of the skills, knowledge, and behavior needed by the operations team to run the plant at an optimal level. This is often referred to as a competency model.

In many cases, a competency model can be used to design the overall training program. The model addresses questions such as: What training modules are needed? What are the training goals of each module? How will the learning be achieved? How will trainees be assessed to ensure they have achieved the learning goals? How much time is needed? What facilities are necessary?

Finally, a performance management program is required, which is closely linked to operator compensation.

The U.S. National Training Laboratories found that practice doing a task or activity has one of the highest retention rates versus a lower retention rate for audiovisual learning. As a result, it is recommended in nearly all cases that a custom operator training simulator (OTS) be used as an integral part of training. An OTS is the only tool that ensures operators receive plant-specific and realistic hands-on instruction ahead of plant start-up and throughout operation. For Greenfield facilities, the use of OTS technology within an integrated training program ensures the fastest possible start-up and earliest stable operations at design capacity. In an increasingly rigorous business environment, with plants running closer to their performance limits with fewer operators and support staff, the importance of alarm management to maintaining safety and reliability is becoming paramount. Operator competency goes hand-in-hand with this requirement, and can only be achieved by combining the right technology and training solutions.

Kevin Brown is global alarm management best practices leader and Martin Ross is global product manager, UniSim, for Honeywell.

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