Dow Employs GPS for Pipeline Worker Safety

April 1, 2011
Dow Pipeline Co., an operating company of Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical Co., manages some 4,000 miles of pipeline along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coasts—including some areas that are too remote for cell phone network coverage.

Those coverage gaps could cause problems for the 80 to 100 Dow technicians who maintain the pipeline. Though all have mobile radios in their work trucks, a technician could be in trouble—with no means of communication—if an accident or other emergency occurred while the worker was outside of the vehicle. So with the safety of its pipeline technicians in mind, Dow set out to develop a system to ensure that it could quickly locate any of these remote workers if an emergency response was ever needed.

In 2007, when the initiative began, there were few options available, says Gary Smith, a manager in Dow’s RFID, GPS and Auto ID Expertise Center, which was charged with developing the system. “Some of the work is in gas-explosive areas, so we needed a system that was satellite-based and had an intrinsically safe offering, and at the time, there were few systems that met both of those requirements,” Smith notes.

One that did meet the needs, however, came from Premier GPS Inc., of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, which provided Dow with a location system based on Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite technology. Dow named the system Remote Reach, to connote the idea of emergency response. “We wanted the technicians to know that we were putting in this system for their safety, and not for employee monitoring purposes,” Smith observes.

In operation, each pipeline technician wears a small, intrinsically safe, personal fob on a lanyard or attached to the belt, which communicates via two-way proprietary radio to a base unit in the truck. The truck, in turn, is equipped to obtain GPS location information, and is also set up for radio communication of data through commercial, low earth orbit (LEO) satellites.

If an emergency occurs, the technician can use a pushbutton on the fob, which carries the worker’s unique identification, to signal an alert. This alert, along with the GPS location information, is transmitted via the truck through the LEO satellites to Premier GPS servers in Calgary, and in turn, to a Dow dispatch center in Houston, where it links to a dedicated personal computer and triggers a loud, audible alarm. An alarm can also be triggered automatically if a fob goes horizontal and/or motionless for a set period of time, signaling that the worker may be down. The system can also be set up to send alarm messages to cell phones and other devices.

When an alarm goes off, Houston dispatchers can view a map of the Texas-Louisiana pipeline area on the PC monitor that shows the location and identification of the distressed worker. And with the participation of a supervisor, who enters a “super password,” the dispatcher can also see the location of other pipeline technicians who might be nearby and could be dispatched quickly to provide assistance. 

It takes two

The need for second-level authentication from a supervisor to enable location visibility of all pipeline technicians is an important feature, says Smith. “We didn’t want dispatchers to have that employee monitoring capability, because we didn’t want to discourage the pipeline techs from using the system because they are afraid that somebody is watching them all the time.”

In the end, the Remote Reach system has been well accepted by the technicians, and provides added peace of mind, both for the workers and for the company. “In case of an emergency, we know that we can identify and locate the employee in a reasonable time period, thanks to the level of detail that the system provides,” Smith observes. “Certainly, the safety of the employees is a primary benefit.”

April 2011, Related Feature – Enhancing Worker Safety with Real-time Personnel Location Systems
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