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Process safety boosted by digitalized lifeline

April 22, 2021
Driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, new software and other digitalized tools and improving standards can streamline traditional process safety practices
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Process safety has never been easy, but it can get easier. Because it requires awareness and motivation beyond immediate operations and production goals, process safety was traditionally seen as a drain on labor and resources. Periodic attempts are made to reframe it as a good investment, but they run into the fact that safety initiatives remain time-consuming. They typically require many manual steps, while support software for performing process hazards analyses (PHA) and layers of protections analyses (LOPA) are often isolated from their data sources, can't communicate with each other, and can't reach higher-level analytics functions. Fortunately, better software and other forms of digital transformation are beginning to show that they can streamline many of these former hurdles.

Pandemic pushes virtual PHAs 

Just as it's altered most other work processes, COVID-19 has driven users and system integrators to perform PHAs, LOPAs and similar tasks virtually and online, using remote conferencing tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and others, according to Chet Barton, P.E., F.S.Eng., controls and automation process safety industry lead at Hargrove Controls + Automation, in Baton Rouge, La., Hargrove  is a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA)

"It used to be rare to conduct a virtual PHA, but priorities shifted during the pandemic. While it once seemed critical to have everyone in the same room, some clients began prioritizing project schedules over the in-person experience. We've performed multiple virtual PHAs because of restrictions to site access, and this will likely continue even as site access restrictions relax," says Barton. "So we set up Teams meetings, share our screens, look at the P&ID and other PHA documents, and pretend we're there in person. Everyone was worried initially because we always met in-person before, but we learned that we could do the PHA remotely because its essence is just a discussion about what hazards could be there and what to do about them. Since we're mainly talking about hazards, consequences and mitigations, it's possible to do a remote PHA by practicing some of the basic work-at-home skills. Many users and companies are realizing that remote work is OK, and the same is true for doing PHAs. Once you try it and get used to it, it works."

Organize data, save labor 

Probably the most important way to streamline process safety is making the data it relies on easy to access and analyze, which saves time and effort, and makes safety procedures more likely to be developed, implemented and followed.

"I think remote work and digitalization will have big impacts on process safety, even though digitalization hasn't had a big impact yet. This is similar to what happened with predictive maintenance and advanced process control (APC), which have been available for a long time and got more sophisticated, but can generate so much data that users don't know what to do with it," says Hargrove's Barton. "We work with many users that don't have the time to input and keep up with safety data because they're mostly worried about keeping their processes up and running."

For instance, one of Hargrove's chemical plant clients wanted to adopt aeShield's database-oriented, safety-management software, so it requested one of Hargrove's teammates to learn it, help implement it, and serve as an ongoing consultant. "The problem is that many clients who want to improve process safety have a hodgepodge of systems and safety documentation, which is often outdated or lost, and this stops their safety programs from getting started," says Barton. "That's why some hire us to perform audits, fill in gaps in their safety programs, and update existing documents or generate new ones. These documents include PHAs and LOPAs that are supposed to be revalidated every five years. They also include safety interlocks based on the PHAs and LOPAs that address specific operations, safety scenarios and mitigations, which should also be tested periodically.

"Unfortunately, there are many times when this hasn't been done for awhile, so users and whoever is helping them must make lists and check the accuracy of the ones they can find, produce new interlocks for each one that can't be found, and develop safety requirement specifications that define what each interlock should do. Each facility typically has hundreds of interlocks. Usually, we can find documents for half of them, and half of those are usually correct. Luckily, software is getting better at organizing all this data, and this can help process safety, too."

Even though safety management software is separate from process safety controls, aeShield and Mangan Software Solutions' Safety Lifecycle Manager (SLM) software let users input their safety interlock functions and track testing and trips. This allows Hargrove's clients to monitor and validate their assumptions, and make sure they realistically represent what's actually happening. This is especially important for PHAs that need to be revalidated every five years, which has been required since the early 1990s by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration's 1910.119 standard, "Process safety management (PSM) of highly hazardous chemicals." 

"These tools consolidate all our safety data in one centralized place, which allows much better access and documentation," explains Barton. "In the past, if we tried to assess a potential incident that could only happen every 10 years, such as loss of utilities during a startup or shutdown, we might only have anecdotal evidence or tribal knowledge to rely on. However, safety lifecycle software enables long-term documentation and access, and lets users develop an interlock that will be triggered if this infrequent incident occurs. It also documents new trips or other events, pulls and stores their data, and puts it in context, so users can fill in gaps in their procedures, enable key performance indicators (KPI), and make personnel safer by allowing better testing of systems including safety interlocks."

Barton reports that another Hargrove client didn't have procedures for testing its interlocks, so they had no idea if they were working properly, or if they'd provide protection if and when an event happens. These gaps are similar to operating issues highlighted in the well-known videos produced by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which often point out interlocks that aren't working properly, all the conditions that must line up for explosion or other incident to occur, and the need for testing before equipment and processes are put back into service.

"Any type of process application from large oil and gas or chemical facilities to just a process heater can lack effective interlocks and testing, so we help users update or generate them, write procedures, and train staff to do periodic testing," says Barton. "Just like with diet and exercise, if they do what's right, then there's less chance of safety issues and incidents, and the whole process application is healthier and has a higher general safety level. And everyone can take satisfaction from it because they're not only protecting their people but also the surrounding community."          

About the author: Jim Montague
About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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