Safety and the human touch

Luis Duran, Global Product Line Manager for ABB, explores how the latest generation of automated safety systems are helping to improve safety, while also addressing new and emerging risks, and the role of humans in managing safety.

Mission critical computing systems have been introduced in manufacturing processes and automated tasks, resulting in increased safety and productivity during normal operations. The oil and gas industry has in past years and decades increasingly embraced automation to improve safety and remove people from harm’s way. However, the question remains: To what extent can these technologies truly keep the plant safe during abnormal process conditions? 

Despite rapid advances in technology there are times where human intervention is critical, and humans therefore remain a vital part of any industrial safety solution. Technology has increased safety in many ways but has also introduced new risks. The industry relies on human ability to respond to the unexpected, handle odd conditions and understand the right questions to fix the problems at hand.

Today, operators are loaded with numerous activities, but with the increasing roll out of automation, particularly in carrying out safety functions, there is a challenge in retaining and consolidating knowledge and skills. Meanwhile, systems must be sufficiently user friendly that they can be used effectively by the relevant personnel, including newcomers to the company, facility or industry.

Unless trends can be reversed in the coming years, the oil, gas and chemicals industry is facing a growing skills shortage. The knock-on effect is that as employees leave the industry, they take with them valuable experience that unless passed on, is simply lost, particularly for older equipment and machines. When it comes to safety, these gaps in knowledge could ultimately end up costing lives. This is why it is vital that automation systems can bridge the skills gap and allow future generations to access the relevant information needed to enable them to safely manage and optimise plant performance.

Making safety accessible

It is important to remember that automation in safety systems is intended to support rather than replace people. Against the backdrop of an increasingly acute skills shortage, the key to unlocking optimal safety performance is therefore in making automated systems accessible.

The challenges associated with the shifting skills set in particular have seen suppliers such as ABB developing new ways to make safety more accessible. While traditionally discussions around safety were centred around the mysterious worlds of process and safety controllers and inputs and outputs, often spoken in the daunting language of Functional Safety Management-related jargon and acronyms, the changing skills profile of today’s plant staff has seen a shift towards making safety more visible and functions more easily understood.

Automation within the context of safety is less about handing over control of all safety functions to a computer, but more about providing critical information where and when it is needed, in a way that an operator can understand. This then allows the operator to use their experience and knowledge to put the information into context and make an informed decision as to what the next steps should be. A system must be designed so that the operator’s attention is immediately drawn to any issues, while ensuring that they are not overwhelmed with irrelevant information. Features such as visual and audible alarms can help to direct the operator’s attention to a potential area of concern so that it can be promptly addressed. ABB’s System 800xA DCS for instance can ensure that the operator has full focus on an emergency situation by physically raising the control desk in the event of an alarm, forcing the operator to stand up.

The system should also incorporate protection to prevent the operator from inadvertently creating a dangerous situation or making an existing one worse and should feature layers of protection that will stop the operator from performing certain actions or present them with appropriate alternatives.

Ensuring compliance with standards

Another area where developments has taken place has been in the integration of process and safety controllers. The IEC 61508 and IEC 61511 standards state that safety and non-safety functions can be integrated within the same system provided that “it can be shown that the implementation of the safety and non-safety functions is sufficiently independent (i.e. that the failure of a non-safety related function does not cause a dangerous failure of the safety related functions)”.

While using separate systems for process control and safety, integration under the same automation environment offers several advantages. Foremost amongst these are the benefits of having a single environment sharing the same operating and maintenance principles and technologies, including features such as a common HMI and consistent engineering tools. ABB’s System 800xA provides a single platform for managing tasks such as commissioning and upgrading, significantly reducing the scope for error arising from having to train and work on two separate systems.

Building cyber security into safety systems

Remote communications and operation have opened new possibilities for productivity and efficiency, while also contributing to better safety. However, it has also led to concerns about security. With more and more operations being controlled and monitored remotely, this opens new potential vectors for unauthorised access and attacks on industrial control systems.

Protecting against such attacks expands the requirement for security from purely physical means to cyber security measures. Protecting the automation systems, and especially safety systems, against malicious attack demands the same mindset as designing a site safety policy. Companies should have in place a strategy for managing and updating both safety and security management systems and creating and implementing a security policy that can be applied to reduce wherever possible the vulnerability of a company‘s infrastructure to potential attacks. To ensure its continued effectiveness, this policy should be kept updated in the same way as a safety management system to reflect new and emerging risks. 

In summary

While practice, preparation and the correct equipment remain the fundamentals to an effective safety system, automation will in the coming years help to support people in operating in a safer, more secure, and more efficient way. For more information about ABB’s automated safety systems for the oil and gas industry, visit


Related Articles