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By Gregory Hale
Technology is a great tool to ward off safety issues at process plants around the world, and having a quality process in place will almost ensure a successful operation, but humans and the role they play at any manufacturing facility can be a bonus or a bust depending on the moment.

That was the consensus during the sessions focused on “Human Factors in Chemical Process Safety” at the 2016 AIChE Spring Meeting and 12th Global Congress on Process Safety in Houston last week.

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The goal in a process safety environment is to use the positive capabilities of humans to optimize performance.

The catch is humans do make mistakes and most process safety incidents end up attributed to human errors. Obviously, humans cannot end up cut out, but they can get help through technology, processes and training. Part of that training comes from learning from past incidents. One case scenario given during the session focuses on the explosion and fire that destroyed the Formosa Plastics plant in Illiopolis, IL, April 23, 2004.

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This accident occurred when an operator overrode a critical valve safety interlock on a pressurized vessel making polyvinyl chloride. Vinyl chloride liquid and vapor discharged into the plant and was ignited, resulting in a massive explosion.

The Chemical Safety Board (CSB) found Formosa and Borden Chemical, the company from whom Formosa purchased the plant in 2002, were aware of the possibility of serious consequences of an inadvertent release of chemicals from an operating PVC reactor. But the investigation determined the measures both companies took were insufficient to prevent human error or minimize its consequences.

The accident resulted in the deaths of five workers and serious injuries to three others. About 150 persons in the small community of Illiopolis ended up evacuated to avoid contact with toxic fumes and smoke. The facility was heavily damaged and has been permanently closed.

“There is a lot of potential for things to go wrong,” said David Jones of JCL Risk Services LLC. “Humans are the cause of human error, but humans are also there to make things better. If you don’t have the right culture, you are facing an uphill battle.”

Radix Andrews, Atlantic LNG competence assurance officer, says safety is all about culture, competence and compliance.

Culture, he said, is a learned behavior, while competence is the knowledge and understanding and skill to perform a task. Compliance, he added, is performing a task within the rules and guidelines.

What he has found from his experience is to achieve an objective, workers will bypass requirements. “Even the best employees will bypass safety rules to achieve productivity,” he said. “We say safety is important, but we do contradictory things. We need to do proper safety.”

When it comes to safety, Luis Duran, product manager for safety systems at ABB, said there were $20 billion in annual losses in the process industry with 80 percent of that being preventable and, additionally, operating errors make up 42 percent, or $6.7 billion of that total.

What is at issue is how do help operators do their best?

“It is not possible for technology to solve the problem, it is a tool to help solve the problem,” Duran said. “Technology has to help solve problems. We have to make sure we are using the right technology to solve issues. We should connect the technologies to what we have to do.”

From an engineering point of view, the goal is to eliminate errors before they before a bigger issue, he said.

“We should connect the technologies to what we have to do. We want to enable an operator to (provide) his best performance,” Duran said.

Part of that is to provide a more solid ergonomic platform for the operator, Duran said.

Part of the ergonomic message in the new control room brings:
• Harmonization
• Integration of different information
• Integration of different groups of people
• Situational environment

One example would be more effective displays that are easier to understand. The design of the operator’s physical environment, where we can change lighting to improve awareness of a situation. So the operator is more alert and able to handle stress within the plant, Duran said.

The use of color, for instance, can make or break an appropriate response. Color is useful, but too much color can be overwhelming and confusing. One effective way to improve this is to follow the principles of high-performance HMI.

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