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How Digitalization Enhances Worker Safety and Performance in Chemical Plants

July 3, 2023
The potential to dramatically reduce operational risks suggests safety should be a key component of digital transformation initiatives.

Digital transformation initiatives are often built around specific performance-improvement goals, such as productivity, supply chain optimization and sustainability. Safety is often viewed as an added benefit or an afterthought in digitalization plans. However, the inherent dangers of chemical process plants suggest that shouldn’t be the case.

Chemical owners, operators and managers must always strive to avoid safety incidents—even as they balance project timelines and productivity levels. Industry leaders must implement to achieve this proper alignment and prioritize safety throughout projects.

By understanding how real-time data can transform plant safety, chemical processing organizations can reduce risks, while benefiting from increased efficiencies throughout their plants.

Here are three ways chemical processing operations can use digitalization to enhance employee safety and performance.

1. Real-time Visibility

Nobody wants worksite hazards to escalate into significant safety issues. Best practices call for chemical plants to provide clearly marked guidelines and regulations, along with the proper protective equipment for workers. In addition, regular machine maintenance is critical to advancing a high level of safety.

What if a plant doesn’t have visibility into productivity metrics, safety compliance and equipment management?

Automation tools like cloud-based software and wearables can deliver real-time visibility. One example is an intrinsically safe clip-on wearable that can provide the real-time location of workers, a personalized evacuation alarm, RFID turnstile access and a lone worker push-button. The push button could be used if a worker is trapped in a confined space to alert the EHS crew of their situation.

With IIoT wearables, sensors collect data and transmit it into cloud-based software across a standalone network, independent of the facility’s internal IT infrastructure. From there, the operations team can access real-time data about the work happening on their site.

With the right tools, chemical operators can know the location of their personnel to reduce muster time and ensure they’re complying with safety regulations. Also, by tracking employees, contractors and equipment utilization digitally, project owners and managers can eliminate safety blind spots and decrease time to safety.

2. Informed Decision-Making

Manual tracking of employees can make it difficult to find workers in the event of an emergency, especially on a large work site.

With digital automation, project owners and management have real-time visibility of who is on site and can gain insight into contractor fatigue and equipment usage. Using this data, operators can make informed decisions on how to schedule and utilize workers experiencing higher fatigue rates than others, reducing the risk of an incident.

In this case, software tools provide fatigue dashboards and an alerting system so plants know which contractors are nearing or reaching their limit for hours worked. Operations teams can set alerts for daily thresholds (such as 14 consecutive hours on site) and consecutive day thresholds where you are alerted (such as on day 14).

3. Save Time and Cost

We can all agree adopting and implementing the right automation tools can support job site safety. But what about the bonus of streamlined management decision-making and improved business processes?

With the right automation tools, leaders can monitor productivity levels among workers and track project completion against set timelines. Case in point: Resourcing issues such as the availability of skilled labor, equipment and materials on site are identified early, allowing for proactive resolution. This helps to minimize delays and costly mistakes and ultimately increases productivity—plus ensures a safer working environment.

Proof-of-presence software can capture in/out times for everyone at a facility. It also can log the skill level of everyone coming onto the site to help optimize employee utilization. For example, having real-time visibility of the skill level of workers coming into a plant can help organizations proactively ensure they have the correct resources onsite to complete the planned work for the day or shift. With that visibility, they also can eliminate excess workers if a contractor has sent too many workers to the job.

In addition, automation provides in-depth visibility into worker time on site and equipment use to help eliminate overbilling from contractor teams.

Without automation, this is not just a productivity issue but a safety, cost and compliance one. If chemical plant operators don’t know who is on site and when, they can’t ensure they’re adhering to safety standards. This is particularly dangerous if they can’t validate hours worked or an individual’s skill qualifications during a high-risk overtime and double-time situation, like a shutdown, turnaround or outage.

Achieving Safety First Through Automation

Many chemical processing organizations have complex systems and equipment, generating a vast amount of data. Integrating and consolidating the data into a centralized platform can be challenging, especially when dealing with legacy systems. Cybersecurity concerns mean any new solution must ensure sensitive data is safe from unauthorized access.

However, chemical operators who lean into powerful automation tools can access the insights and capabilities to keep workers safe on the job site and mitigate emergencies.

Broadly examined, automation in the chemical industry comes in many shapes and forms. Plants may use robotics to handle hazardous materials or wearable IIoT sensors that collect and transmit data into cloud-based software. They may also use plant cameras for automation to spot safety and compliance violations.

The right automation tools can help improve safety in the chemical industry by:

  • Reducing the risk of accidents caused by human error
  • Improving process efficiency and control
  • Enhancing monitoring and control
  • Reducing human exposure to hazards
  • Facilitating safety training and compliance

Undoubtedly, human error is one of the primary causes of accidents in the chemical industry. Automation systems help reduce the risk of human error by taking over tasks that are repetitive, monotonous, or require a high level of accuracy.

While digitization has many benefits, real-time monitoring and control of chemical processes can be a game-changer. It allows operators to quickly detect and respond to potential safety hazards.

For example, sensors and software can automate evacuation procedures to reduce time to safety and prioritize rescue and remediation. Connecting and communicating with emergency personnel quickly means management can automatically locate workers and facilitate a faster muster and evacuation time.

When chemical leaders fully understand these technologies and their capabilities, they are more likely to drive adoption and implementation on-site. When they can strategically implement these tools, they can drive operational excellence. However, ignoring the need to get people and processes on board is at the root of many failed digital projects.

Putting safety first. Adopting the right automation tools. Driving implementation. These are all keys to productivity, reliability, and profitability. But mainly, it helps chemical operators keep employee safety front and center to guide priorities and decision-making in the industry.

About the Author

Ken Naughton | President, Management Controls

Ken Naughton has expertise on the challenges of contract work management and is currently the president of Management Controls. He has been with MCi since April of 2011, previously holding the positions vice president of consulting services and chief operating officer. Ken has over 25 years of oil and gas experience. Before his time with MCi, Ken was an executive in Accenture's energy and chemicals practice. 

About the Author

James Franklin | CEO, Triax Technologies

James Franklin is the CEO at Triax Technologies. James has more than 20 years in technology leadership experience with market leaders, such as Oracle, HP and Accenture. He previously worked at Omnilink, where he started and led their commercial location-based services business. 

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