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Shift-to-Shift Communications Are Critical to Plant Safety

March 1, 2021
What are best practices for plant safety and operations?

Shift-to-shift communications are key to plant and worker safety. They are also important for mitigating risks and production interruptions. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has put fewer workers and managers onsite, increasing the need for clear, concise communications during shift handovers.

A devastating accident at an oil refinery even before the pandemic added new pressures highlights the severity of the problem. The accident caused 15 deaths, 180 injuries, damages to the refinery, long-term environmental issues, and racked up millions of dollars in losses to the refinery owner. The final incident review by regulatory authorities noted that poor shift-to-shift communications were a significant contributor to the accident.

Years later, communications during shift handovers is still an issue. Researchers at the 451 Group in January 2020 asked 300 senior executives representing the chemical, pharma and petrochemical industries what percentage of safety incidents that happened during their tenure were a direct or indirect result of communication breakdown between shift teams, senior staff and supporting incidents. More than 60% said up to a quarter of the incidents fell into the category of communications breakdowns, and 20% said up to half of incidents were due to communication failures.

Improving team communications is a challenge for many manufacturers. They do not know how to best structure the way teams communicate and how to ensure the 15 min. or so of handover time is used effectively.

The 451 Group report also noted that information-technology and operational-technology executives who responded indicated a need for advanced technology and more organized, collaborative, and communicative shift handovers.

Advanced technology lets connected employees in the control room, the field, on the plant floor, and remote offices securely access a “single source of truth.” Here, everyone gets the same information at the same time. This standardizes and streamlines communications for quickly responding to problems.

Decentralized digital data capture increases accountability. Records of signatures and workflows maintain smooth operations, help reduce risks, and address safety issues. They also eliminate unwieldy and inconsistent paper logs that are often not as current as they should be to assure quality and safety.

Manufacturers are embracing advanced technologies that make operations more efficient, such as sensors that record vast amounts of data. But the human factor is still critically important. Embracing new technologies at all levels can be a challenge to workers with varying levels of experience, especially if large amounts of data need to be interpreted at the start of a shift without having an overall picture of the previous shift. Shift-to-shift communications software lets workers share information, but it needs to be intuitive and easy to use so all teams involved in the process accept and use it.

A single platform can provide the most updated information on manufacturing processes and procedures. This improves productivity as well as safety. It is like a single conversation shared by many and resulting in a single source of data for plant procedures and process improvement.

One company that put a cloud-based shift-handover platform in place to streamline operational effectiveness and improve safety was Ascensus, a specialty chemical firm. To get buy-in from all involved in working the 24/7 shifts at the plant, Ascensus brought together a broad base of people who would be affected by the software introduction.

Ascensus chose software that was up-to-date and would be secure. The software also needed to fit into company’s overall IT strategy and be able to be managed internally and grow as the company’s needs increased.

Although deployed prior to the onset of COVID, the software became increasingly important as more workers began to work remotely. It let workers on- and off-site work together on a shift-to-shift basis, mitigating risks and safety issues. Based on the success with the platform, Ascensus plans to roll out the software at another of its sites.

Companies in process industries should carefully consider using technology for shift handovers if:

  • Knowledge gaps or communications silos are degrading safety and plant reliability.
  • Office or collaboration tools do not adequately addressing the needs of 24/7 operations and environments with hazardous operating conditions.
  • A fragmented tool landscape complicates handovers between shift teams and senior production.
  • Having data explained by human operators could help usher in the next level of machine learning.
  • There is a need to retain of long-term employees’ valuable knowledge of long-term employees.

A digital transition of your operations management and shift-to-shift communications may not be as daunting as it sounds. A single platform may easily fit into your existing IT structure and, even more importantly, be a key to worker productivity and safety. Critical information will be up-to-date and communicated at all levels—from the entry-level plant worker to engineers, production managers and the corporate suite—assuring uninterrupted and smooth plant operations and importantly, quality, reliability and plant safety.

Andreas Eschbach is founder and CEO of Shiftconnector.

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