Make a Winning Business Case for Investing in Plant Safety

While occupational safety incidents are at their lowest levels in recorded history, process safety incidents evidence no improvement, as is shown by the number and severity of incidents in the last five years, some of which have been catastrophic. This has ensured that process safety commands the attention of the highest levels in an organization.

CEOs are now, more than ever, taking direct action and accepting accountability for their organizations, the employees, the community and the shareholders. This includes enforcing cultural and behavioral change and breaking down operational silos to ensure that all groups are communicating with each other. They must also make sure that the information at hand is correct and that it holds the highest level of integrity and accuracy, in order to allow those using it to make sound business and operational decisions.

Challenging issues arise when organizations take on major safety initiatives without a clear understanding of the existing conditions in an organization. Cultural changes, behavioral issues and operational barriers faced by organizations at the data/informational level still exist today. The challenge lies in justifying the return on investment (ROI) of a capital project to reduce the risk of a statistically improbable event. However, forces exist that should improve the chances of securing the investment dollar despite desirable plant safety records. These include increasing commercial, environmental, regulatory and public-liability pressures, aging plants and an aging workforce whose expertise is rapidly disappearing into retirement.

These factors all increase the costs and risks of plant ownership. They tend, however, to be lost in today's weak economy, when funds for any project are tight. However, gambling with plant safety could prove very unwise. So, what if senior executives could be shown that investment in plant safety actually produces measurable returns and pays for itself very quickly?

Fortunately, such solutions are available, involving fully harnessing plant information to share, not only at the local facility, but across the whole organization. This is important, since plant accident investigations often conclude that inadequate information sharing proved a major factor. The key is to provide intuitive Information Technology to support critical business processes. This combines the strengths of IT in managing complex information assets with the strengths that people bring to solving problems – being creative, spotting trends and planning and exercising judgment.

Legacy Plant to Digital Plant

Experience has shown that the information issues in legacy plants increasingly hamper operational excellence or continuous improvement initiatives, as the critical processes involved are not supported with the information that is needed. Generally, this vital information is inaccessible (i.e. siloed, in different systems and in various data formats), or it is missing, is out of date or, worse still, is incorrect. The quality of this legacy information has decayed since the initial plant handover of incomplete or inaccurate information and lacks as-built mark-ups during commissioning. This, coupled with the constant changes that occur during operations, many of which precede engineering due to operational imperatives, means that key initiatives such as operational integrity management, risk-based inspections and predictive maintenance are built on shifting sand. The foundation of critical information needed to ensure successful implementation of these critical initiatives is constantly changing and it is of dubious quality.

Until recently, the costs of capturing, cleaning, verifying, and correcting such legacy information were prohibitively high. However, available technology can now automate a very large proportion of the work, using techniques such as document scraping, which intelligently extracts key information, and gateways that integrate different data formats and sources. This not only eliminates much tedious and costly work, but can also automatically associate and cross-reference information, as well as highlight inconsistent or missing information. It also frees up skilled staff to focus on resolving the genuinely deficient information – the inconsistencies – which is a much smaller task. An exercise that would earlier have been measured in man-years now takes just man-weeks. Such intuitive IT applications and the business processes they enable take plant operations into a new dimension. Call it the "digital plant." This comprises the complete description of the corresponding physical plant (i.e. the as-operating plant). It covers a vast amount of information of almost every type, created using a wide variety of software. It includes 3D models, 2D drawings, P&ID schematics, equipment indexes, spares catalogues, stores inventories, procedures for operations, engineering and maintenance, safety instructions and the like.

The solution involves information management. Whether known as Asset Lifecycle Management (ALM), Integrated Asset Management (IAM) or Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), this technology has a common purpose: to unlock and integrate the information silos.

It proves easy to see the impact that information management of the digital plant can have. With the technology available now, it is possible to browse and cross-reference every type of information across the entire enterprise. This is not limited to static information such as schematics or specifications, but includes the continually changing information that every plant generates. At the practical day-to-day level, this allows plant operating personnel to monitor plant performance and status easily and in many different ways, from a computer screen anywhere in the plant.

Automatic alerts can be configured, not only to warn of process conditions that are out of limits, but also to present work-packs for the necessary corrective actions, and to register an open task for their execution. Work thus gets carried out promptly, with complete and up-to-date information, saving time, man-hours and cost. It also eliminates two common sources of human error: uncertain information and the failure to fully document a task on completion.

At a higher level, initiatives such as Operational Integrity Management can be provided with integrated, cleansed and managed information to provide Key Performance Indicators to measure status and highlight deviation from targets. Such visibility helps manage resources and sets priorities. It creates more scope for increased productivity and more effective impact assessment, and the avoidance of unforeseen conflicts between apparently unrelated tasks. Without such an overview capability, those responsible must take positive steps to search out potential conflicts. This can prove time-consuming and can never prove completely reliable.

Avoiding the unexpected

Powerful information management plays to our human talents for problem solving and creativity. It makes it easy to pull together completely different types of information and examine their interrelationships. For example, imagine that a particular pump proves unreliable in service, for any number of reasons. By viewing comparative data about similar pumps in the plant, or across the organization, an engineer can quickly look for irregular patterns of behavior or compare maintenance histories.

The engineer may have a hunch about a likely cause. Reliable data allow him to test his ideas, while comprehensive cross-referencing of disparate information could lead him to an unexpected diagnosis that might otherwise be missed. Clearly, this sort of capability makes troubleshooting and routine maintenance easier and more productive.

But the potential for spotting the unexpected triggers more than simply economic benefits. Many safety incidents arise from something unexpected – but why should that be? Because those concerned do not have sufficiently complete or reliable information, and the problem gets worse as plants become more complex. Only an application that can integrate the silos of information, and that supports suitable processes with quality information, can transform process and safety data into actionable information to prevent daily plant incidents from turning into serious or even catastrophic events.

Opening the window

Today's technology offers lots of firepower, but how does it work in practice? This is an important question since the digital plant can prove to be an "information mammoth" – a daunting prospect even to experienced information specialists. In addition, every discipline must be easily able to access and share all available information and be confident that it is up-to-date and accurate.

There are several solutions to create and maintain the digital plant currently in the market, such as AVEVA NET, from AVEVA, GEM from Gemcom, Mining Dynamics from Runge and Oasis Montaj from Geosoft, among several others.

These solutions, especially AVEVA NET, enable users to quickly access, navigate and collaborate with all available information. For example, in investigating an unreliable pump, the maintenance engineer might jump between a spreadsheet, a specification, a vendor manual, a P&ID, a historian log or a navigable 3D model of the plant, simply by clicking on hotspots in the different views. Alternatively, he may undertake this investigation with a specialist or vendor watching his every move. Since no limit exists to the type or quantity of information that can be handled, plant operators can configure and populate their particular information-management solutions to meet their needs. What if no 3D model of the plant exists, and the P&IDs are paper documents? No problem. Simply load in digital photographs, 3D laser survey data, or scanned drawings, and apply hotspots to individual items in the images.

The bottom line

Difficult times invariably increase cost pressures, which create the temptation to "manage down" spending, even on critical activities such as safety. So it is important to show, in more detail, how information management can actually save money – often quite a lot of it – while maintaining or increasing plant safety.

Independent analysis estimates that an enterprise with 500 skilled workers, each spending seven hours per week just hunting down information, loses as much as $7.5 million worth of productivity every year, even without consideration of the increased levels of operational risk. When you scale this to the size of your own operation, it can be a sobering statistic. And if you consider this figure too high, remember that when someone cannot find something, he or she usually asks a colleague (which doubles the man-hours wasted) or, if under pressure, goes with his or her "gut-feeling" – an extremely risky approach. Add to this the knock-on effects of delays in fixing problems: lost production, rework, materials wastage, safety hazards, lowered staff morale and so on.

One major oil company found that its information management system increased staff productivity to nearly 80 percent from below 20 percent, freeing up resources for value-add maintenance, engineering and operations activities. Suddenly "nice-to-have" looks more like "need-to-have."

Further, if one is unfortunate enough to experience a serious plant incident, then one quickly recognizes the benefits of having an up-to-date information system.. For example, Suncor Energy, a leading company in the development of the Alberta oil sands reserves, suffered a catastrophic fire at one of its plants. Because a digital plant existed and was known to be accurate and reliable, reinstatement was quick and efficient. The plant was back in operation in nine months – half the usual time for such a project. Suncor estimated the cost saving to be around $1 billion.

Thus, in persuading upper management that an investment in safety can reap a solid ROI, the question you ask should not be, "How do you put a price on safety?" Rather, it should be, "How do you put a price on a lack of safety?"

Clive Wilby, a registered European and Chartered Engineer, is a Fellow of the Institute of Measurement & Control and a member of the Institution of Engineering Technology. He is a principal consultant for Operations Solutions at AVEVA and specializes in operating processes and information systems.

Links and References

Asset Lifecycle Management for Service-Oriented Architectures

AVEVA NET

Beyond the Mine Mouth: The Equator Principles and IFC Performance Standards

Communicating in the Face of Disaster

Gaining a Social License to Mine

GEM

Integrated Asset Management (IAM)

Legacy Information System Migration: A Brief Review of Problems, Solutions and Research Issues

Mine Safety: Everybody's Personal Responsibility

Mining Dynamics

Mining in Five Dimensions

Oasis Montaj

Product Lifecycle Management (PLM)

PlantSuccess 2008 Calgary: Highlights Alberta's Leading Role in O&M Technologies

Realistic Simulation Accelerates Safety Evaluation of Mine Designs

Recruitment and Retention Challenges in the Mining Industry