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Developing a competency scheme for functional safety assessors

Author : Stuart Nunns, managing consultant, functional safety, ABB

20 September 2010

Whatever industry they are in, responsible companies see the safety of their products and solutions as of vital importance. ABB is certainly in this camp.

Stuart Nunns
Stuart Nunns

In addition to the traditional safety lifecycle activities of verification, validation and functional safety audits, ABB places great emphasis on Functional Safety Assessments (FSAs), an independent check that ensures that functional safety has been achieved.

Independent FSAs provide an additional level of assurance to clients and regulators. Performing FSAs requires staff to have a high level of knowledge of IEC 61508 & IEC 61511, combined with assessment experience. The competency of those involved in the assessment of functional safety is equally, if not more, important as the competency of those engineering such systems.

Functional Safety (FS) Assessors operate with a high level of independence and impartiality and need to demonstrate professionalism and integrity in the tasks they are asked to perform. Their recommendations on the achievement of functional safety of a safety-related system and project can have a significant impact on not only the project but the organization as a whole. ABB needed to ensure its FS Assessors had the required skills and so developed a structured competency scheme that would achieve this.

Safety Execution Centers keep safety on track

ABB engineers safety-related systems through Safety Execution Centers (SECs) located in 25 countries around the world. These SECs work to a Functional Safety Management System (FSMS) that is compliant and certified to IEC 61508/IEC61511 and are supported by a corporate functional safety authority, the Safety Lead Competency Centre (SLCC). Safety-related projects are engineered in accordance with a safety life cycle mapped across to IEC 61508 Phase 5 and IEC 61511 phase 4. Each safety project is subject to two functional safety audits and a functional safety assessment performed at three stages of the safety design and engineering activities. Safety projects can be ‘green field’ and ‘brown field’ and linked to on-going support contracts involving modifications to existing safety systems.

The audits are performed by the SEC QA function and form an integral part of the SECs’ ISO 9001 certification. The FSAs are performed by competent ‘independent-from-project’ FS Assessors in accordance with the requirements of the standards.

Assessing the assessors

The SECs engineer safety-related systems in accordance with the requirements of IEC 61508 Phase 5 and IEC 61511 Phase 4. However, one of the challenges faced by the company was to develop a competency scheme for FS Assessors which could be rolled out across all 25 SECs. It needed to be cost effective, easily managed and represent a pragmatic interpretation of the requirements of the standards. It also had to have the support and endorsement of each of the SECs’ senior management.

FSAs and the responsibilities of the FS Assessors had to align with the requirements of the standards. Because the SECs work predominantly in the Oil, Gas and Petrochemical sectors, the decision was taken to use IEC 61511 as the applicable standard for guidance on performing functional safety assessments.

It was decided that candidate FS Assessors must meet certain minimum eligibility requirements. They should:

  • Be actively working within an SEC using the compliant FSMS
  • Have previously attended ABB University courses on FS management, IEC 61508/61511 and SIL Achievement
  • Have a minimum of two years in safety projects
Other desirable characteristics are:

  • TUV FS Eng qualification
  • Experience in auditing
  • Education to degree level
Candidates are then required to provide a detailed Curriculum Vitae focused on functional safety detail, including:
  • Qualifications
  • Training (courses, seminars, conferences)
  • Publications
  • Additional relevant experience (e.g. control systems, oil & gas, petrochemical, chemical, reviews and auditing)
  • A comprehensive list of safety projects undertaken, covering:
    • Project description and scope
    • Responsibilities and key work activities
    • Application (e.g. F&G, ESD, BMS)
    • SIL rating
    • Complexity and novelty of technology
Core competencies

The IET and HSE helped identify core competencies relevant to these phases of the safety lifecycle. These were then reviewed and developed into a set of core competencies tailored to the needs of the SECs:
  • Domain and safety related knowledge
  • Project execution and review
  • System architectural design
  • System hardware realization
  • System software realization
  • Verification and validation
  • Safety-related system operation, maintenance and modification
Candidate FS Assessors need to provide supporting evidence against each of these core competency requirements, which is reviewed by the SEC manager and by the global FS manager at the SLCC. Candidates achieving a specific threshold are nominated as ‘Provisional FS Assessors’.

Training develops real world skills

The next stage is a three-day training course, which develops core competencies in functional safety assessment, teaches the ABB functional safety assessment process and introduces the techniques used in performing FSAs.

Skills developed and assessed on the course include safety auditing and eliciting information, reviewing safety documentation, report writing, knowledge of safety regulations and standards, principles of functional safety practices & assurance, team working an attention to accuracy and detail.

Two of the three days are spent working in break-out groups performing FSAs on an actual safety project. This includes deliberate errors and omissions that trainees have to spot and report their findings. There are also a number of individual multi-choice exercises for course candidates to complete to a satisfactory level.

As part of the course, candidates are provided with checklists and guide-words to assist them in performing future assessments. However, these are meant merely as an aide memoir and should not be used to drive the assessment.

Following the course, a mentoring process sees the global FS Manager and his core team of FS Assessors act as observers at an agreed number of FSAs undertaken by the candidate assessors within their SEC, after which the ‘Provisional FS Assessors’ become full ‘FS Assessors’.

This allows them to undertake FSAs within their local SEC as well as other SECs in defined regions of the world. Future plans include annual meetings of FS Assessors to exchange experiences, findings and suggestions for improvements to the process itself.

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