Safety automation reduces hazard levels

Deepwater Horizon response

In light of the Piper Alpha disaster almost 26 years ago and the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe four years ago, there is no doubt safety systems remain a top priority on the water.

Along those lines, as systems and operations get even more sophisticated, dangerous and complex, automation needs to become more prevalent in the offshore oil and gas environment. By having a deeper automation footprint, there is a better chance at sustaining safety by cutting back on the weakest link in the safety chain: People.

People will always remain involved in safety systems, as they will in running the process, but with more automation, there is the potential to cut back on the human involvement, thus eliminating levels of hazard.

To ensure a stronger all around safety system, users need to start at the design phase.

“We want to engage with the (user) at an early point,” said Luis Gamboa, oil and gas industry solutions manager at Rockwell Automation during the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) in Houston in May. “We need to understand what the (user) is going to do.”

Jumping in at the start allows for the technology to get in place, but it also starts to ball rolling for an evolution in the safety culture which involves having a plan and making sure everyone is on the same page.

“Safety is more than just boxes,” said ABB Product Safety Manager Luis Duran at OTC.

Knowing safety is more than something you plug into a system, users need to talk about and make a plan for an evolving culture, analysis, training, management buy in, learning from incidents and near misses, costs, ROI, prioritizing, communications, and working together. Safety continues to have its growing pains as it becomes even more important in this global age of manufacturing. But these pains come from decades of use and application experience.

Safety leadership

“Increasingly there is an agreement that leadership is a key component for a safe organization,” said Julie Bell, technical lead for human factors at the Health and Safety Laboratory in Buxton, England, at the AIChE Spring Meeting and 10th Global Congress on Process Safety in New Orleans in April. “Managerial failure is at least as important as technical failure. Despite this connection, there is very little information on what leadership should be doing when it comes to safety.”

Bell said there are two types of leadership that link to safety. “Transformational, where the leader acts as a role model and transactional, where the one in charge makes it clear about what will be accepted and what standards will be adhered to,” Bell said. “An active form of leadership plays an important role in promoting a positive culture and safety performance.”

Safety means there needs to be a clear message coming from the top, but it also means constant education from lessons learned.

“We need to share the incidents to learn the lessons. Too often we share, but we don’t learn,” said Mike Broadribb, senior principal consultant Baker Engineering and Risk Consulting in San Antonio, Texas.

Carlos Barrera, managing engineer at Menlo Park, California-based Exponent, agreed with Broadribb. “Sometimes we see mistakes made over and over again and we don’t learn from them,” he said. “Lessons learned cannot just be a slogan everyone learns until the next incident comes up. You need to get to the root cause. If you get to the root cause, you get rid of the problem. But finding the root cause is difficult.”

ExxonMobil has an involved scenario to learn from incidents and to determine what happened, the type of incident and at what level the incident stands in terms of severity. For Exxon, quite a bit is at risk.

“We really have to find the cause of the phenomenon,” said Kelly Keim, ExxonMobil Research and Engineering, Global Technology sponsor for process safety.

Understanding the root cause and knowing that safety remains job one on any platform, the idea of keeping the system running to generate more product also is vital. The catch is, both those ideas are not opposite lines of thought. They can – and should – work together.

“Protecting the environment, assets and people are important values in safety strategies,” Gamboa said during OTC. “Making safety decisions based on compliance and social responsibilities is one thing, but shutdowns cost money. We have to engage in safety strategies to keep systems up and running.”

One of the ways Gamboa said they can demonstrate value with safety systems is to gather as much information on what caused the downtime. Then it is possible to measure the data before and after the downtime. “(Users) want to measure reliability and availability.”

Near-miss strategy

Statoil’s Tjeldbergodden control room
Statoil's Tjeldbergodden control room. Photo: ABB.

Another area that needs a keen eye, and ends up forgotten in the frenetic platform environment, is focusing on near misses. After all, if an event occurred, but any kind of disaster ended up averted, you move on to the next task at hand. Who has the time to analyze something that did not end up being a problem. But that, in and of itself, is a problem.

“A true safety lifecycle management program should consider multiple disciplines and points of view,” Duran said. “It’s an opportunity for continuous improvement in safety performance and operational performance in which it’s possible to report and track any near misses, analyze them for root causes, and use the results to further improve safety performance, not only systems and automation but more importantly procedures, human behavior and performance metrics that drive it.

“Of course technology can enable operations to track the right KPIs as established by plant management, but we need competent and skilled personnel working in a culture that recognizes the value of safe operations, in which uncovering a seemingly small issue can stop the countdown to a disaster.

“Better adherence to maintenance practices is a must,” Duran said. “Asset integrity management systems can help bring about a more proactive maintenance strategy and can even reduce maintenance costs. Part of those assessments will include the idea that system design must follow safety standards that include an ongoing continuous improvement cycle based on periodic Hazard Analysis or HAZOP.

Safety Training In addition to looking at near misses, proper management of the safety lifecycle requires trained and certified workers. Along those lines, maintenance of safetyrelated equipment often goes overlooked and that means operations and maintenance personnel need training and certification in testing safety systems.

In terms of training, one of the major global offshore oil producers who requested anonymity uses a 3D simulator on a floating production, storage and offloading (FPSO) unit where an operator can visualize what tasks he should perform and rehearse and look at pathways and accessibility to perform certain workflows that involve any number of stations and steps within each station.

This 3D virtual environment has a true look and feel that can teach operators what to do and when to do it. If the workers have the proper training, that means they end up with much less loss of production due to human error and with increased efficiency and safety, they lowered the risk and increased asset uptime which enhances the ROI. The real-life simulator can truly prepare workers for the one incident out of a million that has the potential to be a disaster.

By preparing workers for the unexpected events – like explosions, gas leaks, and a man down – it is possible to see how people react. Do they follow the safety plan, or do they go on instincts? Sometimes making the right call means you have to walk away from your first instinct – and that is where automation and the training simulator come into play.

Automation technology, coupled with a strong understanding of safety within the organization that makes responding to an incident second nature, can truly end up reducing, if not eliminating disasters offshore.

Gregory Hale is the Editor and Founder of Industrial Safety and Security Source ( and is the contributing Automation Editor at Offshore Engineer (OE).


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