Overly cautious and ineffective safety procedures hinder manufacturing

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Safety in industrial operations has a direct bearing on profitability. Industrial professionals have long recognised that the cost of unexpected events can be very high, not only in terms of injury and death, but also for equipment damage, facility damage, environmental damage, business interruption and insurance. Some operations might not fully recover for weeks or months.

Health, safety and environment (HSE) has come a long way in Australia and our nation is now one of the safest in the world for manufacturing. But that is not to say we are the most effective in safety operations. Manufacturing is one of the most hazardous industries and safety is a key priority for the sector. That said, inefficient safety operations can result in Australian manufacturing companies being overly cautious in a way that is detrimental to productivity.

Since most industrial operations place a high emphasis on safety, the management of safety constraints is tightly controlled. That is to say, the “better safe than sorry” approach often includes some built-in buffer that affects profitability. Since safety risk is seldom directly measured, most industrial plants assume that the risk is greater than it really is and operate in a more conservative manner than necessary, which limits profitability.

For this reason, although industry is working towards decreasing and abating high cost safety risks by implementing predictive tools there is still room for improvement. If the safety constraint functions can be examined with more precision, the operation can be driven harder in order to increase profitability without compromising the true safety levels of the operation. There are a number of ways that this can be achieved.

Ongoing real-time measurements

An ongoing real-time measurement of safety risk allows manufacturers to determine how hard they can safely drive facilities or equipment. For example, manufacturing equipment itself is limited by characteristics such as capacity, the size of the vessel or pipe, and the efficiency of a particular unit. If a machine is overworked, for example, temperature readings communicated via sensor could indicate that it is running too hot and should be slowed down.

Without real-time safety risk measures, increased risk can go unnoticed. This results in not only a less profitable operation, but also a less safe operation. A more holistic view of the system means that companies are not over-compensating with inefficient safety measures. Adding safety interlocks on entry points of a hazardous machine or process that operators need to access multiple times in a shift is one example of this. Interlocks often stop a machine entirely which costs time and money, reduces quality and induces ‘production frustration’ where employees attempt to by-pass the interlock system leading to more dangerous situations. Instead of this manufacturers can evaluate the root cause of why an operator needs to access the area, such as collect samples or data, clearing or loading the equipment, and automate the process or reduce the number of times access in required.

The deployment of continuous, real-time safety risk measurement is key to effectively controlling safety constraints. This can also be accomplished by further developing a dual view of safety risk.

Opening the safety constraint

The first aspect of this dual safety risk view is operational and compliance safety risk. This involves following processes and procedures with respect to inspections, audits, and reviews determined during the design of a plant. These audits should be executed on a defined schedule to ensure that the operational and compliance risk is as low as possible. History demonstrates that operations applying judicious compliance to audits tend to have much lower safety risk. Although this aspect of inspection may not be most productive it is necessary for continued safe operations.

The second aspect of dual safety risk is conditional safety risk. This involves online condition monitoring and measuring. Unexpected events and conditions that cannot be discerned during a simple inspection can quickly escalate the safety risk. Conditions that might lead to an event can be monitored to detect any suspicious changes. Automatic workflows can be triggered that further assess the situation, increase the conditional safety risk measurement according to the probability and severity of a potential event and advise the operating personnel. As monitoring technologies become more advanced it is possible to maintain a high safety standard while designing out some of the inefficiencies of older safety systems. A good example of this is benchmarking processes. MES systems have been around for some time and manufacturers use them for number of reasons, especially in detecting bottle necks in process or quality issues. Real time output from these MES systems can be used to see if a particular work area is having either low, expected or higher outputs. Low outputs raise questions about a facility’s capacity to function effectively and safety trips can be the cause of this. Higher registered output may be the result of bypassing interlocks and processes unsafely or, alternatively, through use of better methods to improve operations without jeopardising safety. With real time monitoring manufacturers can quickly identify if these tweaks and changes have had the desired effect on both safety and production outcomes. These learnings could be applied to other work centres as well.

The dual safety risk view is dependent on real-time monitoring. The safety risk factors are established for every operation in the plant, operating personnel can then make decisions that improve plant profitability while understanding the impact of their decisions on the safety risk in the plant.

Real-time safety risk control and HSE team response

In order to ensure awareness of safety risk compliance issues, operational safety risk measurement should be shared and be made visible and accessible to leaders of the HSE team. Automatic workflows can be developed around notification and compliance in order to keep management informed when processes are correctly followed and when issues arise. This feedback loop helps reduce the safety risk of a plant while maintaining smooth manufacturing operations.

The set-up of safety condition monitoring involves a detailed understanding of the history of the individual plant operation as well as operation in similar plants. It is vital that HSE teams have this overall view to predict potential operation faults in the future. Historical data must be analysed to identify the lead indicators of an unexpected event and monitoring must be set up that is attuned to safety risk indicators. A corrective action function should be set up by HSE personnel to take various corrective actions based on the circumstances identified for the potential event. The implementation of real-time safety control systems means the manufacturing organisations can be safe without restricting operations unnecessarily and compromising productivity.

Real-time probability control

Appropriate loosening of safety constraints on a production operation does not necessarily lead to increased profitability. It can, however, show the potential for safety to increase profitability is possible. The issue of tying the safety risk measures and profitability controls together can be solved by providing real-time safety risk indicators on operation profitability dashboards. The result is immediate operator feedback regarding increased or reduced safety risk. This feedback results from the actions they take, and enables them to take appropriate profit improving actions while simultaneously mediating safety risk.

Balancing safety risk, production value, energy cost, and material cost in a simultaneous manner is equivalent to solving a multiple objective optimisation problem. This process is challenging and time-consuming, but within reach of operators with reasonable experience.

Safety improvements for Australia

Since the primary objective for a manufacturing or production business is to drive profitability, the safety of people, plant, and environment has often been viewed as a necessary initiative rather than a contributing profitability factor. But it is time for Australia to view the relationship between the two from a new perspective to remain competitive.

Modern control theory can now allow Australian industrial companies to regard previous safety systems as overly cautious in a manner that can sap resources but does not necessarily create a safer work place for employees. By shifting HES operations into mainstream industrial business processes, new levels of real-time profitable safety can result without sacrificing the health of those involved in the industry.

The writer, Marc Radojkovic is Account Manager at Schneider Electric Australia.

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