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An alternative approach to risk assessment

Author : Kevin Walls, Engineering Manager, Energy Industries UK, ABB

27 May 2020

The current health crisis that has forced governments to lockdown society and to mandate social distancing policies is having a profound impact on industry worldwide. Even before the current crisis began, process industries were starting to investigate how remote working and autonomous operations could improve both safety and operational efficiency.

Now, more than ever, industry is searching for new solutions and innovation so that companies can keep assets operating safely and reliably.

When it comes to health, safety, and environmental (HSE) concerns, remote process safety studies are being increasingly adopted. These studies, which reduce face-to-face contact on industrial sites, mean that both ABB and our customers can minimise potential exposure to virus risk. 

By not having to mobilise staff to sites, remote studies also give us much more timely and effective access to customers’ resources and operations data. In countries such as Pakistan and China, for example, this can save several days. 

A case for postponement

There is another option available to process facility operators; to postpone process safety studies altogether to minimise the health risks associated with doing them. A case can be made that this is feasible in the immediate short term, however the risks of postponement need to be balanced with the imperative for companies, particularly in the oil and gas sector, to continue their operations.

Consequences of postponement

The decision to postpone a risk study is not one that should be quickly made. Regardless of whether studies are being conducted for the first time, or are being used to revalidate existing analyses, the desired outcome is ultimately a continuous improvement in process safety, as well as engendering a ‘safety first’ ethos across the organisation. 

Businesses often use studies to validate safety concerns and to identify potentially significant accident hazards. Mitigating the factors identified can have an undesirable effect on project costs, but ultimately, it’s not as high a price to pay as serious injury to personnel. With that in mind, the case for adopting a remote study paradigm is increasingly compelling.

The remote solution

It’s important to note that remote studies have always been available. In an industry that still relies heavily on large-scale (often) paper drawings and diagrams for health and safety studies, considering a remote solution in contrast to tried-and-tested face-to-face ways of conducting HAZOP studies, can seem hard to envisage. 

These studies are a structured and systematic examination of a complex planned or existing process or operation, aiming to identify and evaluate problems that may represent risks to personnel or equipment – it can be a daunting prospect to consider conducting them remotely. 

Even when it is decided that a remote study is required, there are a number of understandable, but ultimately manageable concerns. These include the need to ensure access to information and the disparity between the size and scale possible via a large printed piping and instrumentation diagram (P&ID), and what can be displayed on a PC monitor or laptop screen.

Overcoming hurdles for remote studies

ABB has already conducted various studies and some common themes are emerging. For example, high-quality video feed is important so that the study leader / facilitator has the ability to identify non-verbal cues and body language from study participants. 

As with any meeting, focus group or panel discussion, moderating the conversation and ensuring an equitable, effective flow of opinion requires an experienced facilitator with the gravitas and emotional intelligence to keep the discussion on track while keeping participants engaged. 

Doing so successfully can certainly be trickier when you have a number of people conversing remotely – something we can all identify with given the higher-than-usual number of Skype, Zoom or Teams video conferencing calls many of us have been participating in during lockdown.

We have found, however, that this can be effectively managed during a remote study by adjusting communication styles and setting “ground rules” for participants at the outset.

Undoubtedly, the harder piece of the puzzle is trying to replicate the scale and detail possible on printed paper documents when you are in a remote situation, as there can be challenges in conveying the same information electronically. It may be that some diagrams need to be distributed beforehand to be printed by remote participants or even delivered as hard copies in advance of the session.

Ensuring that the cadence of conversation remains engaging and productive is one of the greater challenges we have found to date, and it is best addressed by making the most of video functionality – and recommending participants enjoy a cup of coffee during the study!

Many of the challenges that are encountered in remote operations are like those in face-to-face meetings, but they are amplified by the remote nature of the interaction, and there needs to be slight adjustments in order to counter them.

The challenges to overcome with remote inspections

We have gone some way towards making the case for remote safety studies and examined some of the methods to help overcome the challenges when working remotely. When it comes to remote inspection of assets, there are complicating factors that are important to bear in mind – but also a wide range of opportunities to undertake these inspections successfully. 

Inspection delay

Kevin Walls, Engineering Manager, Energy Industries UK, ABB
Kevin Walls, Engineering Manager, Energy Industries UK, ABB

The first major challenge is any delay in mobilising a service or support expert to come to your site in person to diagnose a fault. If you can gain access to the expert advice sooner, it is possible to have somebody who is already on site, guided through the required maintenance. 

Fix rate

Unfortunately, statistics show that almost a quarter (23%) of callouts attended by service teams do not result in successful equipment repair, as the first visit is often used to diagnose rather than fix the issue. A second visit, armed with a diagnosis and the right parts, is then necessary, costing time and money.

Pre-visit intelligence gathering about asset faults can save us, and our customers, from wasted time, potential asset failure or damage, and the associated costs of two trips by service engineers. 

Getting the right expert(s)

Depending on the type of equipment, some inspections require more than one subject matter expert to attend to deliver an effective fix. It can be costly mobilising them, and on-site health and safety restrictions, such as the need for visitor chaperoning, can mean service visits pose a time burden for on-site employees.

Remote locations

If you are operating a distributed infrastructure, remote locations can pose an interesting problem. A lot of the process, for example in power networks or water and gas pipelines, may be taking place in different geographical locations while being controlled centrally from one control room. 

Getting an expert out to those remote locations to assist with repair can be costly and time-consuming. Whereas if you could rely on the manpower of a local person guided remotely, it would be a lot more cost-effective.

Increased collaboration

Finally, there are the benefits of increased collaboration, especially where you have parts of your equipment fleet or process that rely heavily on OEM support. Being able to access and collaborate more closely with the original equipment manufacturer brings excellent benefits in terms of making sure that equipment is available and reliable as much as possible.

Using Remote Insights

The solution to several of the challenges that we are facing, both in the current restricted working scenario and to facilitate remote working in the future, are addressed in the ABB Ability Remote Insights tool. This is akin to an industrial version of FaceTime or 

Microsoft Teams. It allows field personnel to be directly connected with ABB, be that a service expert, or in the case of inspections, an ABB subject matter expert.

Although remote working overcomes many of the hurdles of travel restrictions and social distancing, there are some cases, especially around the service of failing equipment or inspections for a safety or lifecycle perspective, where you need to have someone in front of the equipment itself.

Remote Insights, which ABB introduced at the beginning of this year, can deliver these services remotely, avoiding the need to always have an engineer on site. It incorporates a one-way video as it is vital for the expert to be able to see the condition of the equipment and the problems up close. It supports two-way audio and allows more than one expert to be brought in so you can have a group collaboration to look at complex issues or, in the case of an inspection, it allows more than one subject matter expert to be guiding the inspection.

When we were developing Remote Insights, we were cognisant that our customers would need a multi-platform solution. We could not be tied to one operating system or equipment vendor. We needed something available to be used on whatever devices were available on the site. Ensuring connectivity is at the heart of the effectiveness of Remote Insights. 

The subject expert at the support centre can take any live video feed or screenshots that are being used, mark them up in real-time, and those mark-ups will be shared on the screen of the operator. There is also a chat window in the background allowing text-based instructions to be sent forward and backward between people. Finally, the technology also records the sessions as they take place, including the chat and any screenshots taken or files sent, which allows a record of past usages and experiences.

When we started using this technology, we discovered that it reduces downtime, allowing people to get from failure back to operation more quickly. It enables us to connect people with the correct expert instantly. It has had some benefits in improving safety and increasing awareness because it allows us to identify potential safety hazards, as part of the interactions, and have them corrected. Prompt maintenance and fault identification also enables us to improve the quality of the repairs that are conducted.


We are finding that there are many benefits to remote consulting and expect that, for industrial process businesses, many of the new technologies and services available to them will remain attractive both from a CAPEX perspective, but also from an efficiency point of view, long after the current health threat reduces.

Greater pre-visit information will help engineers to make better decisions, resources can be deployed at the right time, and we can reduce potentially significant delays in moving people from one place to another, to attend a site in person.

These technologies and services can allow us to work remotely to support our customers’ businesses without impacting on the quality of our advice or our positive impact on their operations. Ultimately, this means we can help our customers to keep their operations moving productively, efficiently, and most importantly, safely.

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