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Without a disciplined Alarm Management program, the process alarms in a plant become less and less functional over time. The number of nuisance alarms increases to a point where the alarms distract the operator from the plant, rather than doing what they are designed to do.
Alarm management has existed as long as there have been alarm systems, but it has become more important since the distributed control system (DCS) was introduced in the 1970’s. The distributed control system introduced software alarms - alarms that are created or changed by configuring a setting in a computer, rather than requiring a hardwired signal to a panel. As a result, more alarms could be configured for lower cost. This meant safer operations, but it also relaxed the engineering controls on the creation of alarms. Since there was now no cost to implement an alarm, there was no incentive to limit the number of alarms.
Naturally, some of the alarms that were configured were not really necessary, or were set at the wrong value. This leads to "nuisance alarms" - alarms that do not tell the operator anything he does not already know, or which require no action.
Since the 1970’s, as distributed control systems have become more sophisticated, more and more process units have been centralized under the control of fewer panel operators, so each operator has become responsible for more and more alarms. In addition, the number of alarms that can be configured on a single measurement has ballooned. Alarms are now commonly set on Low, High, Low-Low, High-High, Deviation, bad value, and sometimes other values.
An individual operator now is confronted with tens of thousands of configured alarms within his area of the plant. During upsets, hundreds or thousands of these alarms can occur in a very short period. To make matters even worse, organizations such as OSHA, the EPA or voluntary programs like Responsible Care?, ISO-9000 and ISO-14000 require periodic process hazard analyses or process assessments, which all result in the creation of additional alarms.
When there are too many alarms during an upset, they distract the operator and conceal the actual nature of secondary problems, instead of alerting the operator to real problems. So, in the absence of an alarm management program, manufacturing plants become less safe rather than safer; incidents become worse rather than better, and production losses increase.
What Does Alarm Management Include?
Alarm Management consists of the set of procedures, practices, tools and systems that jointly ensure that the alarm system in a plant is as effective as possible throughout the life of the plant. These can include:
All Plants Need Alarm Management
The real question is: "Is my existing Alarm Management sufficient?" Ask yourself the following questions:
When there is an upset,
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