Pick the Real Culprit

A recent international alarm management standard is ratcheting up pressure for improvement

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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The quest to comply with alarm management standards is taxing both human and technical resources at chemical makers — and driving developments to make managing alarms easier. Vendors such as exida, PAS, Schneider Electric and Human Reliability Associates, as well as the Center for Operator Performance are at the forefront of this activity.

Standards on alarm management have continued to evolve since the June 2009 publication of ISA-18.2, the first true standard on alarm management applicable to U.S. companies. (See: “Avoid the Domino Effect.”) Alarm management standards went global in October 2014 with the release of the international standard IEC 62682.

“Companies of all sizes are feeling more pressure to comply with the alarm management standard,” says Todd Stauffer, director of alarm management services for exida, Sellersville, Pa. “The pressure is typically applied from company senior management or corporate management and pushed down. At the lowest level, on the front line, the implementers and practitioners who have lived with the problems also feel pressure to address their alarm management issues — much of it internally generated,” he adds.

The weak link in some cases, notes Stauffer, is company or plant middle management: “While they support the need to address alarm management issues from a philosophical point of view, their actions may speak differently. They may not actually make available the necessary resources — i.e., people — for an alarm management program to be successful.”

One common challenge is to set expectations appropriately for an alarm management program. For example, the standards give recommended KPIs, such as the number of alarms per operator per day, for alarm system performance. In many cases, these aren’t achievable over night, but will require significant effort and resources, plus both short- and long-term performance targets.

Stauffer stresses that an understanding of the ten-point alarm-management lifecycle (Figure 1) should underpin any strategy.

However, this poses its own challenges: “In many cases, end users feel that the best way to get started on an alarm management program is to jump into rationalization. This, however, is not typically a good place to start. For new greenfield systems, the best place to start is with the development of an alarm philosophy document. For an existing system, the best place to start is typically with monitoring and assessment and/or audit so that one can benchmark initial performance and identify the most pressing issues that need to be solved. The next step would typically be the creation of an alarm philosophy document to create a framework for addressing the identified alarm management issues.”

Overall, the main challenge that companies face is making the appropriate people available, he counsels. “Alarm rationalization can be a resource-intensive process and the people you want involved — process engineers, control engineers and lead operators — are typically very busy. So, setting out a reasonable timetable, for example, four hours per week in order to systematically work through the process, is important.”

Stauffer points out that on a typical shift operators make many decisions that impact the financial bottom line, from optimizing how a unit runs to preventing unplanned shutdowns to supporting preventative maintenance. An effective alarm management system is one of the best tools that you can give operators to help them do their jobs better, he believes. On the other hand, having an ineffective alarm system can negatively impact operators’ performance.

“As the discipline of alarm management becomes more mature and the impact of standards is felt more widely, companies will be able to rely on their alarm systems to drive operator productivity and efficiency,” he adds.

Seven-Step Method

At PAS, Houston, evolution of the early alarm management guidelines into today’s formal standards with concrete performance criteria and metrics demands has led to the development of a seven-step methodology to manage alarms:

1. Alarm philosophy development;
2. Data collection and benchmarking;
3. “Bad actor” alarm resolution;
4. Alarm documentation and rationalization;
5. Alarm audit and enforcement;
6. Real-time alarm management; and
7. Alarm system control and maintenance.

The company suggests deploying its PlantState Suite (PSS) alarm management software to initially benchmark the performance of the alarm system against industry best practices and to provide a baseline for measuring the gains of a project at completion.

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