Safety Is Our Real Business

April 15, 2019
Through every phase of design, implementation and operation of an automated system, there are several types of safety that are inherently tied to the long-term success of a project.

When you stop and think about it, what control system integrators are brought in to deliver is some specific capability with our expertise and experience that ensures the safe and efficient accomplishment of the mission. If the client’s own internal experts, or certified integrators, are not able to do the job, then other resources (uncredentialled, unverified) might be asked to do the work, jeopardizing the processes, procedures and qualitative metrics.

Safety is not trivial or to be taken for granted. It comes in multiple varieties, is multi-level, and is inherently tied to the long-term success of each project and every client. These levels of safety include operator, consumer/customer, product/process, equipment and environment. Each one requires and receives due diligence study, understanding the unique parameters of the project and the measures of success that bound the work. Each of these levels will be described further here, highlighting the role of the integrator and the value delivered to the project in the safe and efficient process and outcome of the work.

Operator safety is commonly thought of as the first feature of a safe project focus. People are not only the biggest variable in any production system, but they are also the most flexible and adaptable assets of any organization. Integrators pledge to protect and safeguard the well-being of maintenance teams, machine operators and others who work around the automated equipment we design and deliver.

All is lost if there are preventable accidents and injuries suffered in the operation of systems designed and integrated by experts. Financial, emotional, technological and other losses and damages occur if operators are hurt. Prevention must be Job 1. The human factors in this field are primary and great lengths are pursued to ensure that the people closest to these automated processes are trained, protected and equipped for the safe performance of their tasks, interacting with all kinds of sophisticated equipment and products.

The onus is truly on the system integrator to anticipate the scenarios that could cause risk and harm to people and thereby avoid and prevent such failures. Well-known techniques that protect workers in confined spaces or that require lock-out/tag-out efforts to de-energize equipment and account for worker protection are now very well-known and have become standard best practices.

Consumer and customer safety is the second area of concern when engineering in safety to any automated system. The client’s objective is to produce a product which itself must be safe (discussed next) and accepted by the market with confidence and trust.

The quality, integrity and veracity of an automated system’s design, fabrication and operation is in direct proportion to its output. That means having processes free of known deficiencies, incorporating best-practice outcomes in design, and taking all reasonable precautions to safeguard the end user. Best practices from the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) ensure that the way the integration business is run is auditable, audited and certified to a set of standards that are established to integrity of the processes and protect the customers of our customers.

Product and process safety, the output and the means of producing it, are another area of concern for system integrators. Much attention is paid to the safe handling of various elements and processing of the foodstuffs, chemicals, components, ingredients, etc., that make up the final product. How it all goes together is as important as what goes into it. Rigid controls on the origin and integrity of raw materials require that traceability and verification be designed into most systems today. Great attention must be paid to the safest handling of materials to prevent spoilage, waste, decay and deterioration—anything that would compromise the process and degrade the end result.

Generally, the factors that engineers manage to control the processes of production and handling include such things as temperature/humidity, dosing and metering, mixing and blending, and storage and feeds/speeds. Control parameters that affect the possibility or mediation of contamination, stability, purity and more are the domain of the process controllers. Programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and other automated control system “brains” that manage the actual behavior of the systems are like traffic cops directing instructions for the proper performance of the equipment in the midst of all the various system activities going on at any time. Process design to ensure that comes from experience, proper documentation, and specific process knowledge that gets captured into the control architecture.

Equipment or asset safety is particularly important in that it directly relates to all the others above. High-functioning equipment that is well-maintained, properly engineered and purposefully designed to match the application for which it is used delivers optimal results with less risk to the operators and the product it produces.

Less manual intervention in this type of equipment means fewer chances for accidents. Effective and well-managed maintenance schemes keep such critical assets running smoothly, costing less in the long run, and providing maximum uptime and availability to continue making product (and money). Total cost of ownership models can demonstrate the significance of choosing the right equipment and of keeping it operating efficiently and properly.

As with process control, we can monitor the equipment condition in real time. This will allow predictive detection of out-of-control conditions (actual or optimal) and enable lower-cost, well-managed repairs or corrections to be implemented when most convenient and prior to any kind of crisis conditions. Equipment that operates more efficiently is inherently safer.

Environmental safety can be the byproduct of all these other safety systems. Keeping processes within control limits will cause the venting of exhaust also within the regulated and planned boundaries. Engineering in the proper seals on the fittings and instruments will reduce or eliminate the possibility of spills and leaks. Further safety planning will seek to contain any potential spills and/or leaks before they pose a hazard. Working with the rules and regulations of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state counterparts, along with local municipalities having authority over these kinds of environmental issues, is another strong area for the right integrators who bring such subject matter expertise to system design and operation.

It is the integrator’s job to concurrently consider and plan for the successful management of both the macro (external) and micro (internal) environmental conditions that could arise so that their mitigation is ensured and the risk to all parties is minimized or nearly eliminated.

Steve Beyer is general manager of Optimation, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Optimation, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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