By Gregory Hale
It is time to focus on human reliability.

“We have done a fantastic job in improving productivity, let’s try to prevent human error,” said Eddie Habibi, chief executive and founder of PAS, during his keynote address Tuesday at the PAS Technical Conference in Houston. “Human error is to human reliability as pump failure is to asset reliability.”

In these days of faster, better, more, the reliance on technology is becoming greater. The catch is technology is solid and it keeps getting better, but what about the people running the technology? Are they getting better?

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There is a tremendous value automation systems bring as asset reliability helps bring in a solid return on investment, but now manufacturers need to also focus on human reliability and the human automation relationship. “We can’t take the human out,” Habibi said. “The operator is the most critical element in production.”

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“Technology is available to improve human reliability,” said Larry Evans, founder and former chief executive at AspenTech and current advisor to PAS, during his keynote address Tuesday.

“These solutions allow engineers and operators to make good decisions and fewer bad ones,” Evans said.

We all know about what happens when there is a big disaster, but what about the small upsets that occur. They end up costing companies quite a bit and they don’t have to happen, Habibi said. In addition, the small upsets can lead to bigger problems. “The little things can add up to make huge things.”

To Habibi, the operator is the vital link in the automaton chain. That person needs to always have a good day because “when he has a bad day, everyone has a bad day.”

“The human is the weakest link. The role of the operator is to supervise the automation at the plant, making sure the automation system is doing the right things,” he said.

There are two types of human error, Habibi said: Unintentional and intentional.

Unintentional errors are the things we don’t mean to do. He gave the example of when he was in a plant one time and an operator changed a setting from 4.7 percent to 4.9 percent, but instead changed it to 49 percent. He said he never saw anyone run so fast as soon as he realized what he did. He ran out of the room to fix something and that averted a potential catastrophe.

Intentional errors, he said, come when the operator thinks he or she is smarter than the procedure. “They happen because we think we are doing the right thing,” he said. “The goal is to prevent human error, similar to physical asset reliability.”

To help alleviate human error, operators need to have situation awareness, which is having a collective understanding and cognizance of the environment around you. It is ongoing, constantly looking to do the right thing.

Habibi said there are three types of situation awareness:
• Physical environment
• Organizational culture
• Human automation relationship.

Physical factors include control room ergonomics, lighting, temperature comfort, along with traffic and noise issues.

Organizational culture deals with policies and procedures, shift schedule and reporting, work ethic and motivation, and training, knowledge and skills. “You have got to take care of people; give people the right tools,” he said.

The human automation relationship has different tiers. Tier one is direct operator interaction. Tier two is decision support systems. Tier three is automation asset management.

When it all comes down to it, as Evans said technology is going to continue to grow, but humans need to be able to keep up with it and make sure everything is running safely.

“Faster, better, more is great,” Habibi said. “But faster, better, more and safe is a hell of a lot better.”

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