In this article, Klaus Allion, managing director, ANT Telecomdiscusses the safety and financial implications that arise from a lack of health and safety measures, particularly when it comes to remote or lone workers, and how automated alarm systems can transform the outcome.

Alarms are the wake-up call that most of us dread. But some businesses have recently experienced wake-up calls with implications far greater than that Monday-morning feeling. Confused? Here’s a quick quiz question: what do Tesco, South West Water and the little-known railway technology company, Firth Rixson Metals, all have in common? What about Thames Water and Yorkshire Water too? The common denominator is that all these companies have recently been issued with huge fines for serious incidents where inadequate alarm management and poor processes had contributed to their failure to respond appropriately to emergencies.

The wider repercussions were significant. In addition to massive operational and reputational costs, Tesco (£8 million) and Thames Water (£20 million) drew record fines for environmental offences, with the Environmental Agency criticising the latter for ‘failing to react adequately to thousands of high priority alarms used to alert them to serious problems’. In most cases, the incidents caused substantial pollution, killing fish stock and threatening public health. In the case of South West Water, the costs were human; a lone worker conducting routine maintenance was found dead after it took the company 90 minutes to respond to the alert. Alarmed? So were these businesses – but, like many others, their systems and processes weren’t good enough to prevent serious incidents escalating into full-blown crisis.

You’d think that instances such as these would be a wake-up call for organisations operating in potentially hazardous environments. But too many, it seems, are still sleeping at the wheel. Although the importance of alarm management in industrial settings is widely understood, many companies still don’t have the infrastructure and processes in place to recognise and respond appropriately to high-risk emergencies. Moreover, many are failing to take advantage of advances in automation and mobility that can reinforce operations and safeguard both their staff and their profits. Companies’ failure to leverage the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) is, quite literally, an accident waiting to happen.

Many businesses rely on an alarm management processes where all alerts are routed through operators based at centralised control centres who, in turn, escalate and activate response. It’s an approach that’s inherently flawed. The natural time lag between the alert and the response is, on its own, enough to cause concern. For example, when an automatic alarm alerted South West Water to a sewage discharge in August 2015, it took the water company almost 3 and a half hours to dispatch an emergency crew and 6 hours to discover the problem. However, the difficulties of assuring a timely response are exacerbated by other challenges.

Fundamentally, control centre operators in process industries are ridiculously busy. Best practice guidelines around the use of alarms in industrial settings provide useful context as to just how busy they really are. For example,  EEMUA Publication 191, the de-facto industry standard for alarm management, and ISA-18.2 argue that the most successful alarm management systems are optimised to deal with around 300 alarms a day. However, in many industrial environments, daily averages significantly exceed this. Commentators estimate that in oil, gas and chemicals companies, operators can expect to receive up to 1,500 alerts a day, whilst in power and utilities firms it can rise beyond 2,000.

Of course, the lion’s share of those alarms will be for minor issues such as routine maintenance or non-urgent repairs, with more significant events like equipment malfunction likely to be less frequent. Serious accidents or machine failures – both of which could force a plant outage – are naturally more rare. But they’re also completely unpredictable, making it essential that companies have the best processes in place to respond in a timely fashion when required.

One of the biggest challenges facing operators is that many have no effective means of distinguishing routine alarms from critical alerts. Alarms typically present via dashboards that alert operators to problems but often don’t provide enough information to help them understand their potential implications. It’s not their fault. Control rooms are generally call centre environments manned by operators with limited technical expertise or site knowledge, making it hard for them to prioritise workflow based on an appreciation of urgent need. The volume of alarms they receive only perpetuates the problem, creating a fraught environment where operators don’t have time to evaluate individual alerts in depth.

Perhaps most bizarrely of all – particularly given the investment some companies have made in installing state-of-the art control rooms – many operators still rely on paper-based contact lists to identify the most appropriate engineers to respond to alerts. Furthermore, once they have identified the right person, their means of contacting them is the long-hand process of dialling the number, waiting for a response and then calling the next person on the list if the first attempt fails. Fundamentally, in a high-risk environment where every second counts, many centralised alarm management systems still require operators to carry out a high number of manual processes where time just ebbs away. It’s time they don’t have.

The approach is a hostage to fortune; if two critical alerts land at the same time, which gets dealt with first? If the control room is busy, does the operator spot either? And if they do, do they recognise the potential severity? Maybe. Maybe not. The fact is that most businesses simply don’t know.

Thankfully, technology can provide an effective and affordable solution. With the combination of pragmatic processes and familiar tools, critical alerts can be automated to go directly to the mobile devices of the most appropriate engineers, on-site. Those same alerts can still be flagged to the control room, but operators will be able to see that a critical task has been escalated, accepted and actioned by the best-placed person for the job. And if it hasn’t, they can check and challenge in the normal way. Crucially, the time-lapse between an operator receiving and responding to an alert is completely removed.

This simple process can accelerate response times and free busy operators to focus on managing less time critical tasks. In an environment where speed and clarity of communication is crucial, the automated process also reduces the risk of the severity of a situation being misunderstood, miscommunicated or lost in translation. Moreover, it provides real-time visibility for engineers on-site, and a robust audit trail for businesses that strengthens governance in this critical area.

Fundamentally, companies’ approach to managing critical alerts is key to assuring business continuity, regulatory compliance and employee safety. But, as ISA-18.2 outlines, alarm management is not about technologies – it is about processes. Many of those processes can – and indeed should – be automated. That’s why the most successful companies will be those who work with a partner that can map the parts of their business where processes can be automated – and design alarm management systems that safeguard their entire operations.

The high-profile fines imposed on Tesco and a whole variety of utilities companies should act as a wake-up call to industrial organisations that don’t yet have fully automated alarm management. Conversely, the name ‘Firth Rixson Metals’ may not ring a bell. But what happened to them could just as easily happen to you. And that should automatically be enough to set alarm bells ringing. It’s time to act on them – quickly.