Make Some Alarming Moves

Tackle distractions that impair operator performance and process efficiency.

By Todd Stauffer, exida consulting, and Kim VanCamp, Emerson Process Management

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Alarm design review. This can remove artificial barriers to alarm-free operation at higher performance levels. When examined closely during a process called rationalization, many alarms are found to be unduly conservative or sensitive, if not altogether unnecessary. Alarms should be implemented based on firm process knowledge such as root cause, process dynamics, operational limits, consequence of inaction, time needed/available to respond and an understanding of the steps the operator must take to respond. This contributes to creating a useful alarm system that earns the operators' trust and empowers them to safely push past previous operating levels.

Operator access to alarm and process knowledge. Alarm design information, including probable causes, potential consequences, recommended corrective actions and guidance on how to confirm the alarm's validity, can improve operators' performance. This knowledge often is locked up in the heads of a few senior operators. In a well-managed alarm system such details are made available to every operator, so each can recognize and correctly respond to process abnormalities faster and more consistently.

The ISA-18.2 standard provides the blueprint for implementing an effective alarm management program. It outlines an alarm management lifecycle (work process) that can help eliminate or reduce alarm management issues. The insurance industry and regulators such as the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration are expected to accept the standard as good engineering practice. For an overview of the standard and the alarm management lifecycle, see "Avoid the Domino Effect" [2].

You can improve alarm system performance — and, in turn, operator performance — by implementing a program consisting of seven key steps:

1. Create an alarm philosophy document.
2. Measure alarm system performance, compare to key performance indicators (KPIs), and identify problem alarms.
3. Review the existing alarm system design and rationalize the alarms.
4. Document results in an alarm response procedure and train operators on how to respond.
5. Run revisions through the management-of-change process.
6. Implement alarm system changes dictated by rationalization.
7. Repeat periodically, starting at Step 2.

To control engineers, this overall process should look very familiar because it's very much like a continuous control loop. First you must measure performance, analyze how close you are to target, determine the necessary correction and then apply it to close the gap.

Such a document is the cornerstone for developing an effective alarm management program. It establishes the guidelines for how to address all aspects of alarm management, including the criteria for determining what should be alarmed, roles and responsibilities, prioritization, management of change, and KPIs.

Alarm criteria. By ISA-18.2 definition, "an alarm is an audible and/or visible means of indicating to the operator an equipment malfunction, process deviation, or abnormal condition requiring a response." This definition helps establish the criteria to weed out invalid alarms during the rationalization process. Note that every alarm requires a response (other than acknowledging it). If the operator doesn't need to respond, then there shouldn't be an alarm. Other key criteria include:
• Every alarm should have a defined response.
• An operator must have adequate time to carry out the defined response.
• Each alarm should alert, inform and guide.
• The operator only should get alarms that are useful and relevant [3].

Roles and responsibilities. The document must clearly specify who handles each alarm-management-related task; this is critical to ensuring success and commitment of the necessary resources by management.

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