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  • Writer's pictureMartin Robb | Principal Consultant

Maintaining Situational Awareness and Safety Barrier Integrity in Remote Process Operations

Updated: Jun 12, 2023

The recent confluence of a low-price environment and virus concerns have increased efforts by operators to reduce manning at production facilities. This continues a longstanding trend in process control that is enabled by increasingly reliable communication networks, condition-based monitoring, automation, and artificial intelligence.

Minimal-manning concepts developed for marginal fields / harsh environments have been leading to serious efforts to develop Normally Uninhabited Facilities (NUFs) for offshore production. Could this become the norm for new facilities?

Comments from a Piper Alpha survivor (Steve Rae, presenting the Trevor Kletz lecture at IChemE’s Hazards 30 conference on 26 November 2020) might be worth considering; he described the working culture in the low-price / cost-saving environment that led up to that catastrophic incident, describing how change management, control of work and competence assurance were lacking, and there was a lack of focus on safety. He challenged the audience to ask themselves, “am I playing my part and doing enough to demonstrate my commitment to making our worksite a safer place”.

The development of NUFs certainly leads to a safer worksite on a daily basis, eliminating regular exposure of personnel to risks in the offshore hydrocarbon-producing working environment, but how do we assure process safety in these environments?

The International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP) discusses situational awareness (SA) and the importance of understanding safety-critical human tasks in their 2012 document "Cognitive issues associated with process safety and environmental incidents”. In it, SA is defined as:

  • Perception of information about what is happening in the process (referred to as Level 1 SA)

  • Interpretation of what the information means in relation to the process (Level 2)

  • Projection of the likely status of the process in the immediate future (Level 3).

Loss of SA contributes to many incidents; a study in drilling operations found that 67% of incidents over a 10-month period were caused or contributed to by a failure in Level 1 SA. With the design of NUFs, how is operator Situational Awareness (SA) to be supported so that operators can deliver appropriate control inputs responses when they are located many (or hundreds of) miles from the process location? Remote operation changes the role of personnel in managing process operations.

When located remotely, operators do not have access to the same cues (such as changes to sounds, vibrations, or smells) in the working environment that indicate process upsets changes such as gas leaks or temperature changes. Electronic measures such as Acoustic Detection Systems may be introduced to compensate, but will these always detect the sound of a leak in a complex noise environment that may be present offshore, with boat movements, wave sounds, and increasingly extreme weather conditions?

We may also learn lessons from the introduction of new technology onshore. Competence in specialist fields such as electrical and instrumentation can be scarce, reducing the effectiveness of operations efforts to maintain stable plant performance. Despite technological advances in process control automation, practitioners find many plant control loops being operated in manual mode – as much as 50% in some refineries (source: article on 2020 Control Process Automation Hall of Fame).

Anticipating these shortcomings is a part of a systematic and proactive risk assessment, using the tools available. Table-top, scenario-based exercises such as those described within CRIOP provide a good starting point for identifying issues in communication, automation, and artificial intelligence, and how the human operator – located remotely or within the facility – can use these systems to deliver the robust performance of safety-critical tasks when required to do so.

At ORS Consulting, we are in touch with trends in the industry, maintain close links with system developers and understand the evolving role of the human operator in control systems.

ORS Consulting is supporting stakeholders in multiple sectors. Any comments?

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