For many people, the board game Clue, was their first venture into the world of investigation. Players move around the board, gathering facts about a recent murder and eliminating possibilities, to piece together a conclusion like “Ms. Peacock killed Colonel Mustard in the study with a candlestick.” This beloved, somewhat ominous children’s game highlights the importance of answering the big five questions when an incident occurs: Who? What? When? Where? and Why? (Fortunately, the players of Clue never have to address the morally challenging question of “why.”)
Answering these questions for gas-related hazards is especially difficult given their ephemeral nature and the existing technology used to detect and gather data about them. Many gas detection programs rely on self-reporting. Workers are trained to stop what they are doing when a gas detector alarm occurs and report it to their supervisor. On the surface, this simple approach ensures that all necessary information is collected first-hand and allows teams to get to “why” almost immediately. It is a bit like getting to the right answer in Clue on your first turn. In practice, however, manual reporting leads to alarm events being vastly underreported. Analyzed data from companies that have transitioned from manual reporting alone to automated systems like docking stations have shown up to five times as many alarms actually occurring vs. previously being reported by manual methods.
There are many reasons for this discrepancy. Workers have reported not noticing the alarms on their gas detectors in the first place. Others neglected to report an incident because they felt like they might get in trouble. Some were focused on getting their jobs done – “I just need one more minute to wrap up” – ignored the alarm or even turned the monitor off, and then felt the ends justified the means when nothing bad happened. There are countless other reasons, behavioral and cultural, that stand in the way of a manual reporting program being effective. Without automating your gas detection program with docking stations or other means of data collection, you may be very successful at winning the game of Clue, but only playing the game 20% of the times you should be.
How do we get to “why” faster?
Docking Stations – It is not unusual to see unwanted behaviors and events drop drastically after data starts being collected by a docking station and checked on a regular basis. For example, a steel plant that moved from 90 ‘gas detectors used without a bump test’ alerts in their first month of reporting to less than five alerts per month on average for the next two years. This is because behaviors can’t be investigated if you don’t have visibility into your gas detection program in the first place. And even though portable gas detectors are great at recording basic information like “what” and “when” – gas detector serial #1234 saw a high H2S alarm for 5 minutes last Friday at 9:14am – they are not always well equipped to tell you “who” and “where.” Docking stations are a great first step in collection some “clues” to solve the problem, but you’ll need to take your program further if you want the complete picture.
NFC and RFID Tags – The people who are most successful at understanding their data have taken advantage of the latest gas detection technologies. To solve for “who,” many people assign gas detectors permanently to people and track that information either manually in spreadsheets or sign-out sheets or by setting it within the gas detectors’ software. Some monitors can even be dynamically reassigned to users in the field thanks to NFC or RFID tags, allowing for user names to be added to instrument data even if the instruments are being randomly grabbed from a shared pool of equipment. These methods can quickly turn information like “gas detector serial #1234 saw a high H2S alarm for 5 minutes last Friday at 9:14am” to “John Smith’s gas detector saw a high H2S alarm for 5 minutes last Friday at 9:14am.” One step closer to winning the game of Clue.
GPS and WiFi – The question of “where” has been more difficult to solve. Most people are currently relying on follow-up conversations. “John, where were you last Friday at 9:14am?” It is sometimes hard for workers to remember where they were, let alone the context of the situation. Some portable gas detectors can be equipped with GPS, which can provide a fairly exact location, though GPS is a notorious power hog and can limit the run time of instruments. It also does not work well indoors or in complex, industrial environments. Others use Wi-Fi and complex triangulation calculations to determine location, but this requires a lot of installed infrastructure to get accurate results. Another challenge of using GPS or Wi-Fi-based locations can be worker unions, whose members may have mixed feelings about being so closely tracked.
Bluetooth Beacons – Some gas detectors offer a less precise, but in some ways more actionable, method to determine location in the form of free-form text like “Tank 1” or “Coker, Northeast Corner.” These location assignments can be entered manually into instruments’ software, set by workers dynamically via NFIC or RFID tags, or automatically set based on an instrument’s proximity to Bluetooth beacons. The game of Clue can now start with a lot of cards already on the table. “John Smith’s gas detector saw a high H2S alarm at Tank 1 for 5 minutes last Friday at 9:14am.” Getting to “why” becomes much faster.
Even with all of this information, there are still additional areas in which gas detection manufacturers need to innovate to help safety leaders get to “why” faster. One is providing more contextual information to help confirm if a “what” even occurred and a game of Clue needs to be played in the first place. When we get an alert that “John Smith’s gas detector saw a high H2S alarm,” that doesn’t necessarily mean that John was exposed to a toxic gas or engaged in risky behavior. Perhaps he was safe and there is no action to take. Maybe he was wearing an SCBA and performing according to company standards and best practices. He may have been taking a remote sample as part of a confined space entry. Or, John could have actually been in danger, signaling that administrative or engineering controls need to be put in place. For now, it is left to safety leaders to investigate and gather these clues manually. In the future, however, equipment manufacturers might find ways to add more metadata to instrument logs and reports to filter out safe and unsafe behavior data automatically.
Live Monitoring – A final way that the industry is working to get to “why” faster is by getting data to users in real time, turning “last Friday at 9:14am” to “just now.” Wireless portable gas detectors have been around for over a decade. Recently, more and more manufacturers are offering wireless solutions, and the technology is becoming easier and cheaper to implement. It is very possible for safety personnel today to get an alert on their laptops, smartphones, control panels, etc. saying “John Smith’s gas detector is seeing a high H2S alarm at Tank 1” and to act immediately to investigate and eliminate undue risks.
It’s like starting the game of Clue already knowing the answers. Or, rather, graduating entirely from playing the game and moving to the complex, rewarding task of asking “why” and “how do we keep people safe?”
A full version of this article appeared in the May 2017 issue of EHS Today Magazine. Click here to read more.