Good Alarm Management Pays Off

1 October, 2020 | Blog

Maxym Lachance

Maxym Lachance, P.Eng.

Engineer, Optimization and Advanced Control

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Plant and industrial managers are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of alarm management. The most common criticism is that the number of alarms is exceeding industry standards, such as ISA 18.2, EMMUA 191 and IEC 62682. When there are deviations from standards, it’s typically advised to perform a rationalization by addressing the most prevalent alarms (bad actors) or to resort to a more comprehensive rationalization process using a document detailing the alarm management philosophy. But is such a service more than just cosmetic? Will it really make a difference to reduce alarms? After all, the plant has probably already been operating for a long time, despite the alarms, however frequent they may be.

This blog article is intended to highlight the merits of effective alarm management, but also to demonstrate the potential cost of excessive alarms.

A question of efficiency

Alarm management is a holistic approach that covers many areas, like philosophy, design, operator screens, alarm features (e.g., shelving), life cycle, auditing and change management. However, assessing the performance of an alarm management system can often be simplified by the number of alarms received daily. For an operator, the daily number of alarms should remain below 300, but often enough, a single operator has to manage thousands of alarms a day! 

Effective alarm management will lower the number of alarms, leading to:

  • Less time spent by operators on alarm management, leaving them more time for other value-added tasks
  • Reduced operator stress
  • Better alarm prioritization, because fewer alarms will make it easier to prioritize and process
  • Resource optimization, since having fewer alarms to process can mean having a single operator who can control several plants remotely

Reducing the number of alarms or managing them effectively will also minimize breakdowns and production losses and maximize production. 

Proven benefits

Understanding the return on investment therefore requires drawing a parallel between the number of alarms and the number of issues—production losses, human and environmental risks, equipment breakdowns, etc. Luckily, this parallel has already been proven repeatedly in various standards and articles.

For example, the EMMUA 191 standard (Alarm systems: a guide to design, management and procurement) provides numerous examples of how costly alarm mismanagement can be:

  • The Three Mile Island nuclear power plant was permanently damaged in an accident with losses estimated at nearly $1 billion. Poor alarm management was the main problem, because too many bad alarms prevented the operator from properly identifying the issue. The event report even indicated that the incident could have been avoided if the operator had been able to better understand the situation.
  • The Abnormal Situation Management (ASM) Consortium estimates that losses generated by anomalies in the petrochemical sector range from $10 billion to $20 billion each year.
  • In general, it’s estimated that anomalies generate losses of 3% to 8% of a plant’s normal capacity.

Effective alarm management may not prevent all anomalies, but it will help lower them, minimize their impact and avoid disasters.

Finally, in addition to avoiding breakdowns, outages or incidents, effective alarm management provides other often overlooked benefits, such as:

  • Compliance with current regulations and laws regarding site and employee safety, where the employer is responsible for adopting good practices, including proper alarm management
  • Lower insurance premiums as a result of an improved claims record
  • Increased operational excellence

Conclusion

Alarm management ought to be an integral part of good operational management. Improving alarm management by decreasing their frequency and increasing their quality will enable operators to more effectively control the plant, lower incidents and thereby maximize profits.

Although measuring the direct impact of effective alarm management can sometimes be difficult, remember that the financial, environmental or human cost of poor alarm management is real.

Alarm management pays off! An audit can help you get the facts by assessing your alarm management performance and comparing your practices with industry standards. 

This content is for general information purposes only. All rights reserved ©BBA

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