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Alarm Management and Human Factors

Last Thursday I spoke at an alarm management seminar in Manchester, UK. I speak at a lot of events and, to be honest, the quality of them can be rather variable. This was one of the better ones, with vendor input, but also some excellent input from the UK regulator, EEMUA and some operating company experiences as well. As I often do, I spoke about alarms in the context of the human response, with the operator and associated limitations and capabilities very much at the heart of my session. What was interesting and heartening for me was how many of the other speakers are choosing to consider the topic from the perspective of the alarm system user, rather than concentrating simply on the numbers or the technology. Hopefully this represents a shift in the way we consider these difficult and complex topics.

Alarm system performance cannot be separated from the design of the job/role, the way we present information, the competence of the operator (or other user) the procedural and other support we give them and the fundamental capabilities of the human to process information and make accurate and timely decisions based on the information to hand. Listening to speakers at previous events and reading some of the journals, you might be led to think that responding to alarms was the only thing that constituted the operator’s job. In reality the alarms are there only to aid and inform the operator in his role of controlling the process and other systems of work. When we rationalise or specify the alarm system, we need to consider it in the context of the control room as a socio-technical system rather than as an isolated tool.

Finally, my colleague Richard captured a photo of me getting a little ‘animated’ in getting my point across, so I thought I’d share it with any readers who could do with a laugh during the dark winter months here in the UK. I do sometimes get a little carried away getting the point across! Perhaps delegates should avoid the front row?

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About the author

Tony Atkinson

I lead the ABB Consulting Operational Human Factors team. I've spent over 30 years in the process industries, working in control rooms around the world, in the fields of ergonomics, control and alarm systems, control room design and operational and cultural issues such as communications, competency and fatigue. I've been blogging on diverse topics that interest me in the widest sense of 'human factors', all of which share the same common element, the 'Mk.1 Human Being' and their unique limitations, abilities and behaviours. I'll discuss the technical and organisational issues that affect safety and performance of these process safety operators and technicians and how this impacts control rooms and the wider plant. However learning comes from many places and you can expect entries about aviation, automotive, marine, healthcare, military and many other fields. Outside of work, I indulge in travel, food, wine and flying kites to keep myself moderately sane. Please feel free to post your comments on each post. Blog entries are posted with no set frequency. To ensure you don't miss out on the latest blog post, click the button below to subscribe to email alerts when a new blog has been posted.
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