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Costs Associated with Poor Situation Awareness and Too Many Alarms

Nuisance alarms contribute to – poor control and wasted energy – Standing alarms = feedstock expenses, containment loss, and an increase in utilities – Missed alarms = wear and tear on equipment, increased maintenance costs, and equipment damage – Critical alarms = unplanned downtime, Injury or death, or environmental violations.

Alarms are a safety layer to aid the operator in diagnosing problems, however – alarms are worthless without operator response – so “Operator Response” is the real safety layer and the alarms are simply one of the tools they use but not the only tool!

Think about the investment made in safety systems – designed to bring the plant to a safe state if “:time” is not on the operator’s side during a problem. Most companies make an investment in alarm management, to reduce alarms, but they are not focused on operator response (the main objective).

The focus needs to be on helping operators detect problems before the alarms come in. Many engineers assume alarms are the solution to improve operator response. In most stressful situations the alarms make it worse. You cannot operate by alarm during an alarm flood. Operators should be able to see a problem coming, the alarm should aid in troubleshooting, but alarms are not the total solution. Complete situation awareness is the solution. That means you have to address the operator displays when doing alarm management. So many clients have failed to see a return on investment of spending large amounts of time and money on alarm management. When alarm management is the focus and done in a vacuum, alarms are reduced but information is also reduced.

If alarms are not set correctly, operators will be working on the problem too late and too close to the consequence. This is what we always see during assessments. It has become normal for operators to run processes in abnormal for long periods of time. Sitting, waiting for an alarm, and hoping they have enough time to solve the problem before the consequence. This way of running most control rooms has been going on for many years and is directly linked to major industrial accidents.

Remember, the objective is operator situation awareness – you have to integrate appropriate operator staffing, manageable / balanced operator workload, alarms, displays, screen configurations, consoles, and lighting all into the design of the control room.

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