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The Big Picture – Improving Situational Awareness for Operators

Posted By: David Lee on
Aug 22,2017

Although many companies recognize the benefits of improving situational awareness for operators, they often go about this with very focused initiatives around such things as resolving issues with alarm management. However, this may not be the most effective approach. Improvements to alarm management can have a positive impact on workload, and might even improve operational and safety performance, but there are other factors that determine how successful this effort can truly be. Taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture can help to ensure that all operators are set up for continued success.

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Imperatives for Situational Success:

  • The right number of people to do the job
  • The right people to do the job
  • The appropriate level of support
  • The people are well trained
  • The correct tools are available
  • The work environment supports their activities

Let’s look at each of these individually:

  • The right number of people to do the job – Typically, this is done through management guesswork, based on historical unit assignments and operator progression. Increasingly other more ‘scientific’ methods are being used including time and motion (tough for a console operator), loop count (highly dependent on process) or equipment complexity models. However, these are often focused on normal operation and do not take into consideration abnormal conditions.
  • The right people to do the job - Getting the right people for a specific assignment can be a struggle and is often impacted by seniority-based operator progression, but good field people do not necessarily make good console operators. Using competency-based progression can help, but from a larger perspective, proper new hire selection based on rigorous competency assessment (using tools such as COBRA) will have longer term, sustainable benefits.
  • The appropriate level of support - Providing adequate support for the console operator is essential – whether it is the right number of field operators or reporting to a supervisor that is not overburdened by the number of reports or swamped by administrative duties. Work team design is often overlooked, and, as with much of the organization, generally evolves over time based on changing demands and management initiatives. More formal work team design guidance is available from bodies such as the UK’s Health and Safety Executive. Although the focus is often on operations, other support functions, such as maintenance and production/quality control also need to be considered.
  • The people are well trained - Having the correct tools is obviously essential, but that only works if people know how to use and maximize those tools. Typically, we think of alarm management and human machine interface (HMI). These two definitely need to work hand-in-hand. Having a well-tuned alarm system will, for example, reduce the number of alarms an operator has to deal with, but he will still be reactive if the HMI does not give him tools to predict abnormal conditions before an alarm point is reached. Likewise, having a high-performance HMI with hundreds of unacknowledged high priority alarms, does not help the operator.  Recently, there is more guidance available in the form of standards such as ISA18.2 (IEC 62682) and ISA101. There are also a couple of tools that are often overlooked, communications and shift handover, which both enable the operator to transfer situational awareness within the current operating team and with other shifts.
  • The correct tools are available and the work environment supports their activities – Obviously, the environment needs to support the operator’s tasks. An ergonomic console, with the correct number of screens, laid out correctly is a good starting point. However, there must be consideration of the control room and the larger control suite, to address issues such as fatigue and effectively keeping the operator in the control loop at all times.  Again, there is guidance to be found in the form of standards such as ISO 11064 that can help drive design decisions to maximize operator performance.

In summary, if you are investing money on the various elements of situational awareness, consider the focus and where you can most effectively spend your often limited capital budget. At Avid Solutions, we realize there is often a great deal that can be learned by stepping back and looking at the entire environment, rather than just one area. Feel free to contact us to find out more.


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