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How Industry 4.0 Is Transforming Process Safety

By Jim Petrusich
Published: April 13, 2022
Key Takeaways

Risks are dynamic and ever-changing, but Industry 4.0 technology can help organizations stay ahead of those risks and keep their workers safe.

Caption: Engineer working in an industrial facility Source: gorodenkoff / iStock

Paperwork. Spreadsheets. Document-based forms.

These have been the industry standard for assessing safety and mitigating risk for the past 50 years. Manufacturing plants and industrial firms have been using a wall built of paper to protect against incidents. Unfortunately, it’s a flimsy barrier with limited reach, one that leaves gaps in security and safety - gaps that are often hard to find until it’s too late.

As technology evolves, it’s time to move the paper aside in favor of connected workers, data analysis, and the promising potential of Industry 4.0.

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Managing Dynamic Risks

I believe that industrial safety sits on the cusp of a change that puts the worker in the center of process safety and connects data and insights to transform security.

We haven’t seen a reduction of major incidents in the energy sector over the past 40 years, and there has been a report every year that highlights how certain sectors are struggling to minimize incidents and reduce risks.

According to the Houston Chronicle, a major chemical incident takes place every six weeks - in the Houston area alone. This means that each site faces a 1 in 50 chance of a significant accident per year.

All of this points us to the same conclusion: qualitative methods for estimating process safety risk are simply not working.

At the same time, there has been a major digital revolution in every sector and a surge in the amount of available data. This presents an incredible opportunity to disrupt process safety and risk management through digital solutions that will finally make a measurable difference.

Risk changes dynamically, especially in abnormal conditions. Systems become brittle in cold weather. In hot weather, they overheat. Using quantitative models to monitor risk creates an umbrella that allows organizations to detect, decide, and act. This dramatically reduces the probability of process safety incidents.

Since risks are constantly changing, they must be closely monitored with a management system that not only detects issues but guides users by informing them of the proper responses to those issues. This is why paper-based processes are no longer adequate. They don’t allow relevant information to be monitored in a timely manner and in their full context.

It is essential that companies step away from the limitations of paper and instead look to solutions that can connect all the data that rests within their operations and empower them to take quick and relevant action.

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Data Is One of Your Most Powerful Safety Assets

Data has long been described as the new black gold of the business world. Not only because it can improve profitability, but its value must be extracted from its raw state. Collecting data is only the first step - it’s critical to also filter it into useful and actionable information.

Merely collecting data gives you a pool of numbers and facts. Thoroughly analyzing that data, on the other hand, provides you with a clear look into the situational risks your organization faces and the prescriptive guidance needed to make better decisions and solve challenging problems.

To illustrate the value of this, consider the Deepwater Horizon incident. It took the lives of 11 people, was the largest environmental disaster in US history and one of the largest marine spills in global history, and cost the company a staggering $54 billion. It happened because operators prematurely initiated the drilling startup while they were running blind to the situation. There were holes in their understanding - some tests were skipped and they misinterpreted other test results.

As James Reason highlighted with the Swiss Cheese Model, threats find their way through small holes in process safety barriers, bypassing control design. In the case of Deepwater Horizon, those holes were a lack of data, limited insight, and a series of bad decisions. That catastrophic disaster could have been avoided with better data monitoring and decision guidance.

There is also great potential in fully realizing the power of data currently collected that sits within systems.

Data is something that the manufacturing sector has in abundance. Research by McKinsey & Company found that manufacturing stored significantly higher volumes of data per year than any other sector. This is a clear advantage when implementing safety 4.0 and having the capabilities to collect those countless virtual dots. Without it, however, that massive trove of information results in data overload - lots of information but a lack of understanding.

A Connected Worker Is a Safe Worker

The concept of the connected worker can allow companies to make intelligent use of data to fundamentally shift the industry’s risk on its axis.

However, there are problems that must be overcome before realizing the full potential of a connected workforce. A product solution should be easy to use and intuitive. It needs to combine the capabilities of mobile devices with data to guide decision-making in real-time.

By providing every contractor, worker, and individual on site with mobile connected systems, a company gains incredible insights into site safety. When a hazardous situation occurs, the devices immediately alert all connected workers in the vicinity and guide them with specific information - from the PPE they should be wearing to the target location during an evacuation. With this level of insight and immediacy, people can move quickly and decisively, while also letting first responders know exactly where people are located and what materials they’ll need to resolve the incident.

Making Drones Part of Your Safety Processes

There is so much you can do with data today that you couldn’t even dream of doing in the past. Autonomous drones are a great example of this.

Drones can be programmed to detect anomalies, leaks, and other risk factors. Risk indicators that are challenging to assess can be evaluated quickly and efficiently with the use of these devices.

Drones can also tirelessly execute routines every two hours and submit data to the system. This data is then integrated into a central platform and relevant personnel are dispatched to deal with any possible problems.

Strategic use of drones makes the task of ensuring the safety of working environment and the integrity of equipment and infrastructure far more precise and convenient. All without requiring a dramatic increase in safety personnel.

(Learn more in 6 Ways Aerial Drone Data Can Help Improve Mining Safety)

The Cost of Industry 4.0

When the discussion turns to Industry 4.0, autonomous drones, and connected workers, it also turns to cost.

Let’s be clear, there are real expenses associated with these undertakings. But it’s a lot less expensive than the human safety risk, lost production, extensive asset damage, environmental violations, reputation management, and potential litigation that come from being too late to adopt these technologies.

In fact, once installed, the long-term return on investment (ROI) of a scalable and agile solution is significant. The connected worker is cost-effective. They need fewer physical tools, can resolve problems more quickly, are more efficient and productive, and can communicate with far greater ease. With an effective Operational Risk Management System, they can proactively prevent incidents and ensure proper protections are in place.

(Learn more about Building a Business Case for Safety)

Making the investment in a solution that connects workers allows them to access essential data that will help them resolve issues in real-time. They can also proactively engage with the business when they identify a problem or opportunity. It makes each worker part of a holistic ecosystem that uses data to connect people and mitigate risk, all while analyzing this information to improve and refine processes. Every step takes the business along a value chain that delivers consistent ROI.

It’s even simpler and more cost-effective for organizations building new plants, since the technology can be embedded from the outset, becoming part of the very foundation of the business. Using artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), automation, and intelligent tools, companies can design smart facilities that put data at the center of its processes.

(Find out How Machine Learning Will Reduce Workplace Accidents)

Data and the Human Factor

Connecting workers and decision-makers to relevant data makes operations far safer and more productive. Although they rely heavily on data collection and analyses, Industry 4.0 solutions are all about the human factor. Their aim is to protect the people who carry out the work and eliminate the informational blinders that lead to actions based on incomplete information - actions that can cost lives.

Connecting individuals with correct and actionable information fundamentally changes the risk landscape.

Risks are complex, dynamic, and ever evolving. Every organization needs data-driven risk management solutions that ensure they are always one step ahead of them.

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Written by Jim Petrusich | Senior Consultant for GoArc

Profile Picture of Jim Petrusich

Jim Petrusich is a senior consultant for GoArc, a software company focused on enabling the Connected Worker. He co-authored Industry 4.0 for Process Safety and has an expertise in quantitative risk management.

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