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How the best tech maximizes ORM impact for chemical companies

How technology helps chemical companies build healthier operational risk management (ORM) strategies.

All industrial companies have to grapple with the risks of day-to-day operations.

But for chemical companies, those risks often feel particularly onerous.

Your people’s health, your organization’s reputation, the health and safety of the public and the wider environment – history and legislation provide chemical plant managers with a long list of reasons to worry about risk management.

That’s why companies have spent billions of dollars on control and safety systems to help protect against the highest risks that chemical plants face.

Those systems have been effective to an extent. However, some elements still threaten to bring the whole system tumbling down, from human error to manual processes, lack of compliance, poor training and ineffective or poorly used technology.

So, if you’re still feeling anxious about how well your plant is protected, you’re not alone.

Today’s chemical plant owners and operators are always striving to build more effective, stronger ORM strategies. Along with mounting economic pressures on the industry, almost all of them are searching for strategies that can do more for less – making their plants safer in a cost-effective way.

But what does that mean in practice?

To build a truly holistic ORM strategy, you’ll need to consider three key areas: people, processes and technology. Furthermore, you’ll need to think about how all of these areas integrate and how you can weave them together to build an effective, cost-conscious ORM strategy.

Processes: Fostering Operational Excellence

This is where most ORM strategies begin – and where the least effective ones end.

Processes are undeniably vital for your risk mitigation.

Your plant relies on several critical processes, including process safety management, management of change, asset integrity management and others. These processes are instrumental in creating clear and comprehensive procedures for both routine and non-routine tasks.

The problem comes when your processes don’t properly balance reducing risk with:

  • Usability – If your processes aren’t easy to remember, easy to follow or underpinned by easily accessible documentation, they’re as good as useless. People will forget steps, misunderstand instructions, and in some cases, be tempted to find shortcuts – all of which reintroduce risk to your plant.

  • Efficiency – It’s human nature – and good business to want to complete every action as quickly and effectively as possible. If your processes are too complicated or cumbersome that they affect production, safety will find itself in a constant battle with productivity.

That’s why ORM serves as the foundation upon which operational excellence (OE) is built.

Operational excellence (OE) essentially means that everyone in your organization is empowered – and encouraged – to make the “most effective operational decisions.” That means the decisions that perfectly balance efficiency, safety and cost. OE is built into the standards set by bodies like the American Petroleum Institute – and for good reason.

If you build your operational strategy around OE and RAGAGEP (or Recognized and Generally Accepted Good Engineering Practices), instead of just avoiding risk, you’ll ensure two things.

First, you’ll ensure that you’re in compliance with regulatory agencies and bodies.

Second, you’ll guarantee that your processes are intuitive and easy to follow (since OE is, by its very nature, about doing things in the most efficient way).

Third, you’ll need to show the positive effects of following safety processes. Avoiding injury should be a powerful motivator – but avoiding injury and giving your people the chance to get more done in less time, hit productivity targets and reduce stress? That’s much more powerful.

People (or expecting the unexpected)

In an ideal world, your risk wouldn’t be dependent on other people.

They’re unpredictable. Fragile. Their intentions, attention levels, thought patterns and routines evolve daily – and every evolution introduces uncertainty. That’s why the primary mitigation for any risk should be an engineered solution that isn’t reliant on human memory, motivation or precision.

The problem is that even the most magnificent, engineered solution is, at some point or another, dependent on people to carry out the task at hand.

The perfect process is useless if people don’t follow it. The most advanced machinery falls apart if it’s not maintained or operated correctly.

This means that people – and their inherent unpredictability – need to be at the center of any ORM strategy.

With that in mind, a truly holistic ORM approach should consider:

  • Training – This is about more than just ticking boxes and completing courses. Your ORM strategy should be built on processes that make it easy to track everyone's certifications, competencies, completed courses and what kind of training they still need to compete.

  • Chartering – You can build a foolproof set of processes and fail-safes, but it only takes one rogue employee to bring the whole system crashing down. That’s why it’s essential to fill your plant with the right mix of people – people who can be trusted to follow the right processes in the right way and stick to best practices. Make sure your ORM strategy includes ways to screen for signs that potential employees might not stick to your guidelines.

  • Protection against external threats – The unpredictability of human nature doesn’t just apply to people within your organization. It’s also the greatest asset to malicious actors outside of your company, who can introduce risk via everything from a cyberattack to physical sabotage. To protect against those threats, you’ll need to invest in security technology that can keep pace with human ingenuity. Bad actors are always looking for new ways to infiltrate your organization, so make sure your safety measures are kept up.

Technology: Widening the net and simplifying safety

Everything we’ve covered so far should make one thing clear: Risk management is complicated.

Protecting your people, the public, your profits and the environment means trying to anticipate a huge range of potential outcomes. Trying to account for changeable, illogical human nature, incorporating a wide range of best practices and understanding an interlocking and overlapping series of regulations.

Today’s chemical plants need a comprehensive, strategic approach if they want to protect against every possible risk that could befall them.

This is why technology plays a central role in every successful modern ORM strategy.

Simply put, managing this kind of complexity is only possible with digital transformation.

The right technology will allow you to cover more bases, communicate more clearly, create more consistency – and ultimately, protect your plant from risk – without creating an overwhelming load of manual work. Digital technology, when correctly implemented, is critical to providing the data that aggregates into decision-making information.

With the best solutions on your side, you’ll be able to:

  • Make it easy to follow processes: Remember when we discussed the need to make every process easy to follow, easy to understand and closely tied to OE and RAGAGEP? A good knowledge management system makes process documentation, equipment manuals and training content accessible anywhere, anytime, so it’s easy for your people to always follow best practices. An effective operations management system also allows you to digitalize things like logbooks, handovers, and near misses and ensure that everyone has the accurate and up-to-date information they need to follow processes quickly, efficiently and to the letter.

  • Remove uncertainty by visualizing operations – Holistic ORM strategies are powerful, but it can be difficult to keep track of them. A digital twin is an excellent way of making process data, operations documentation and real-time updates accessible to everyone.

  • Centralize plant asset information – A centralized asset management system holds everything from asset structures to work orders in one secure place. Centralizing this kind of information reduces the chance that someone will attempt to use a broken machine, but it’s also a powerful efficiency booster. With easy access to data about when, where and how assets break down, you can start to build predictive maintenance schedules that maximize efficiency, reduce shutdowns and help your equipment last longer.

  • Reduce human error by increasing operator situation awareness - Improve operator situation awareness and mitigate human errors through the implementation of process safety analytic systems. These systems equip your personnel with effective tools to address various issues that can hamper a console operator's performance, including excessive alarms, poorly performing loops, safety systems in bypass, and operating window excursions. By utilizing these solutions, you can significantly reduce the likelihood of errors and enhance overall process safety.

“Good risk management is good business”

A truly holistic ORM strategy is a powerful thing.

By building an approach that weaves people, processes and technology together, you don’t just take control of your risk. You eliminate much of the waste and confusion that arise when plants try to isolate risk reduction or compliance from human behavior.

This means that holistic, technology enabled ORM is just good business.

Need help figuring out where to start with optimizing your ORM?

In our webinar, “Optimizing Operations and Mitigating Risks in the Chemical Industry through Digital Transformation,” we discuss:

  • Why many control loops continue to fail.

  • How you can use AI and machine learning to reduce your risk without getting stuck under an avalanche of data.

  • Why the way you train and recruit your people can make or break your digital transformation.

Head here to watch the webinar – and start building a truly effective ORM strategy.

About the Author

Bob Hooper is a senior industry consultant at Hexagon with a successful track record in the development and implementation of operational excellence, lean manufacturing and reliability programs within the oil and gas, chemicals and consumer products industries. His areas of expertise include program management and change management, and he specializes in helping customers understand the intricacies and applications of a variety of digital technologies.

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