Managing alarms provides improved process control

Paul Boughton

Why manage alarms, given all the other conflicting pressures on time, and what are the benefits for those who make the journey? Rob Turner reports.

Alarm handling has increasingly become a hot topic over recent years, not least because of a number of high-profile safety incidents. There is usually a significant investment in terms of both time and resources when applied to an existing control system and a need for continuing review to remain effective. It can also result in significant shifts of culture, yet an increasing number of companies have embraced alarm management.

For one thing there is a clear regulatory driver. The HSE in the UK (and increasingly regulators in other countries) is aware of the human factors issues and has been known to use EEMUA191 (a guidance document widely recognised as the Œgold standard¹ for alarm management) in specifying improvement targets.

The HSE approach is to foster a culture of continuous improvement, as the following extract from an article entitled Better alarm handling ­ a practical application of human factors by John Wilkinson and Dr Debbie Lucas of the HSE makes very clear: ³The key message is that it is never going to be acceptable to conduct one review and implement the conclusions.

This has to be part of a continuous process of improvement, just as it is with most other business areas such as quality. Why manage safety any differently?² Insurance companies worldwide are also using EEMUA191 as a benchmark of good practice when setting insurance premiums, or even agreeing to offer insurance cover.

There are a number of operational benefits for manufacturing companies. In our experience an alarm management programme often results in enhanced understanding of abnormal process conditions and consequently improved control and faster, more appropriate corrective action.

This can lead to shorter outages (or even avoiding outages!) plus greater product consistency, higher throughput and better-targeted maintenance because of the higher-quality information available to process operators.

Alarm handling systems are of course a significant decision support tool for process operators and where alarm systems have been implicated in an incident it is normally the human factors element that has been found to be at fault. Any exercise in operator job design should therefore include a review of the alarm system.

Similarly, any exercise looking at the health implications of the control room operator¹s role will need to consider the alarm system as a major potential cause of job-related stress. In summary, alarm management is an exercise in continuous improvement, not a one-off initiative to be implemented and then neglected.

Ideally good practice should be built in from the earliest stages of a control system¹s life, in conjunction with the system vendor as appropriate. Where it is bolted on retrospectively the exercise can be more costly but there are still significant benefits to be had, and these usually far out weigh the costs. After all, why buy insurance if you do not believe you will ever have an accident?

Rob Turner is a Senior Consultant with ABB Engineering Services, Billingham,
Cleveland, UK. www.abb.com/service

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