The State of Industrial Safety: Keeping Better Track of People & Processes
08 April 2011
To say the last few months haven’t been good ones for the face of safety in industrial manufacturing would be a gross understatement. The several reported accidents and explosions at facilities across the globe have resulted in numerous injuries, damaged assets, lost revenue and – most importantly – lost lives.
In light of these events, it’s inevitable that many manufacturers will begin taking a closer look at safety practices in their own facilities and examining ways to ensure their people and processes are adequately protected. Specific questions will be asked: Are the right assets being monitored, and are they being monitored effectively? Do plants truly have the right prevention and mitigation measures in place to successfully deal with abnormal situations? Are the plant responses to incidents cohesive?
The ideal safety system in today’s manufacturing environments would be designed to not only alert personnel to abnormal situations, but provide better overall awareness of the operating environment. This philosophy aims to actually prevent more incidents from escalating into catastrophic upsets that put lives at risk. And when one does happen, personnel have a greater understanding of the severity of the incident and can determine factors such as who needs to be involved to mitigate futher damage, how to limit facility access, and how to coordinate activities such as mustering. Simply put, the goal when addressing problems or incidents is to mitigate further damage, and to develop the appropriate response so that the condition can return to normal as safely and quickly as permissible. As such, many plants will look to design and, in the case of brownfield sites, redesign their safety instrumented systems (SIS) to better their needs. Part of this process will likely involve examining ways to monitor additional critical points and safety devices within their facilities.
Expanding the SIS, though, is a task much easier said than done both from a logistical and a financial perspective, especially in tight economic times. This is largely because these upgrades historically have required more infrastructure to support additional monitoring, dedicated communication and I/O modules that sometimes prove difficult to implement, and I/O modules that are only suitable for small applications. These factors can greatly limit flexibility that plants require for designing the most effective safety systems suited to their needs.
While this issue certainly affects all production facilities globally, the segments most likely to feel the pressure of these difficulties includes facilities in emerging regions, and plants with legacy systems looking to upgrade both for technological and regulatory reasons. In summary, the overall situation doesn’t allow for much flexibility at all – plants don’t have much choice as to whether they should take steps to strengthen their safety systems, and traditional methods for doing so can cause great pain both in terms of finances and operations. Either way, tough decisions will need to be made. There are, however, new technological developments that could potentially reduce the pain felt when undertaking these efforts.
Extending a plant’s safety system to monitor more devices sounds much easier that it actually is, especially for sites with assets dispersed over great distances. The marshalling requirements alone can be impractical and cost prohibitive. One of the newer trends emerging to ease this process, though, is the concept of “soft marshalling” through the use of universal, remote input/output (I/O). Using a soft-multiplexing approach, an I/O module can be mounted directly in the process unit, eliminating the need for marshalling panels and additional infrastructure that can drain budgets. This eases capital expenditure by reducing the overall number of I/O modules, field wiring, junction boxes, and the marshalling cabinets needed. On the operational side, it reduces maintenance costs on wiring drawings and marshalling. Taking the bigger picture into account, this approach gives sites more flexibility for expanding their overall SIS to monitor more points throughout their operations.
Additionally, the concept of universal, remote I/O itself contributes to added flexibility. That is largely because by supporting any type of device on any channel and being able to connect signals in any order, plants can also reduce overall operating and wiring costs, as well as simplify actual maintenance. This provides benefits such as:
• A single high-density module supporting all signal types with line monitoring
• No hardware marshalling requirements
• No external field power required
• An ideal application for remote locations with limited
varied I/O channels
• Flexible network architecture
Additionally, remote I/O makes for easier integration in large applications.
An Argument for Integrated Safety-Security
Along the lines of providing better overall awareness to plant personnel, another potential avenue for enhancing the overall safety system is tying it together with other critical functions. The past few years, for instance, have seen increased discussion regarding whether plants should integrate their safety and security subsystems with process control. While these functions historically have remained separate, the trend draws interest for its ability to improve overall awareness of activities throughout a plant – everything from perimeter security, to process and safety monitoring. A holistic system starts with the distributed control system (DCS) and includes layered measures – special applications, asset management, alarm rationalisation applications and process boundary management. And when an incident does occur, this integrated approach allows plant workers to have greater domain awareness that will help them prevent or mitigate an incident, should one occur. In a last-resort scenario, an emergency shutdown system is engaged to reduce the risk of an abnormal situation.
Making the Business Case
The bottom line is always literally and figuratively the bottom line in manufacturing. These days, though, the issue of plant safety is becoming more-closely scrutinized as something that affects that bottom line – especially in a tight economy.
It’s one thing to work on margin, but when plants have to start paying out everything from facility repairs to personal injury claims, things can turn very unprofitable very quickly. As such, industrial safety is now viewed as a way of not only protecting people while mitigating damage and protecting assets; it’s also being seen as a way to protect a plant’s profitability, and a way to return a plant to profitability as quickly as possible following an incident.
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