Abnormal Situation Management

Abnormal Situation Management

The Abnormal Situation Management (ASM) Consortium is a long-running and active Honeywell-led research and development consortium of 12 companies and universities that are concerned about the negative effects of industrial accidents. An "abnormal situation" is a disturbance or series of disturbances in a process that causes plant operations to deviate from their normal operating state. The disturbances may be minimal or catastrophic, and cause production losses or, in serious cases, endanger human life. The result of an abnormal situation can be unnecessary costly due to production losses, off-spec product, equipment damage, or worse.

Data collected by the consortium has demonstrated that operations practices can lead to costs of 3-8 percent of plant capacity due to unexpected events. Based on these data, the consortium has estimated the cost of lost production due to abnormal situations is at least $10 billion annually in the U.S. petrochemical industry. These estimates were developed early in the consortium's activities, and it is likely that today's costs are much higher.

At the core of the ASM problem is the “Paradox of Automation”. As systems get more complicated, the operator is put into an untenable position. Why? First, as systems become more complex, they become more difficult to operate. One solution to operational difficulty is to add automation. But automation itself increases complexity. In addition to the increase in complexity, it is difficult to maintain operational skills in an automated environment. Those skills are precisely the ones that are most needed when the automated system is unable to handle a problem and the operator is required to intervene.

Hence the consortium's focus has been on addressing the complex human-system interaction and factors that influence successful performance. Automation solutions have often been developed without consideration of the human that needs to interact with the solution. We can provide automation that effectively solves a problem under normal conditions, but when an anomaly occurs the complexity of the automation undermines the ability of people to intervene and correct the problem. One of the goals of the ASM R&D program is to define requirements for user-centered automation and support technologies

Causes of Abnormal Situations

The Consortium’s early studies of incident reporting systems across multiple sites confirmed three principal sources of abnormal situations: people or work context factors; equipment factors; and process factors.

People and work context factors accounts for an average 42 percent of incidents (range of 35% to 58%). The influences on this factor are the training, skill and experience levels of the operations teams and their stress levels when situations reach alarm conditions. As well, the organizational structure, communications, environment and documented procedures and practices (or lack thereof) play a role in operator response.

Equipment factors account for an average 36 percent of incidents (range 30% to 45%). This category includes degradation and failures in the process equipment, such as pumps, compressors and furnaces, and failures in the control equipment, such as sensors, valves and controllers.

Process factors account for an average 22 percent of incidents (range 3% to 35%). Impacts include process complexity, types of materials and manufacturing (batch vs. continuous) and state of operation—steady state vs. startups, shutdowns and transitions


The ASM Consortium aims to identify problems facing industrial plant operations during abnormal conditions, and to develop solution concepts. The output of ASM Consortium research includes products and services, guidelines and other documents, and information-sharing workshops; all incorporating ASM knowledge. Abnormal Situation Management, like general emergency management, is achieved through "Prevention", "Early Detection", and "Mitigation" of abnormal situations, thereby reducing unplanned outages, process variability, fires, explosions and emissions that are reducing profits and putting plant employees and local residents at risk.

The ASM Consortium promotes their vision by conducting research, testing and evaluating solutions that develop and advance the collective knowledge of the members, and by directing development of best practices, service and tools that facilitate the conversion of ASM® knowledge into practice.

Consortium members pay an initiation fee and annual dues. These monies are augmented with control over part of Honeywell’s engineering docket for R&D spending to fund ongoing research. The collaborative consortium approach allows the consortium to benchmark across different companies and plant sites to determine best practices and root causes for incidents. The fundamental approach is a pooling of knowledge.


The ASM Consortium achieves its mission with three programs - Research, Development and Deployment, and Communications - each has specific, interrelated objectives. In alignment with these high-level objectives, the ASM Consortium Executive Steering Committee develops detailed objectives on an annual basis to focus activities in specific areas where there is a potential to significantly improve ASM practices. The amount of emphasis given to projects in each focus area is determined jointly by members of the Consortium.

Research Objectives Program activities seek to identify, develop, evaluate and prove the feasibility of new solutions and associated enabling technologies to reduce risks even further; and facilitate technology transfer to user member sites and the Development Program.

Development and Deployment Objectives The objective of the development and deployment program is to capture the knowledge represented in and developed by the Consortium and to return it to customers in the form of products and services that are successfully deployed. The driving force of these developments will be to further the mission of converting ASM knowledge into practice.

Communications Objectives A primary objective of the ASM Consortium continues to be the exchange of information within the Consortium membership to enhance the understanding and use of effective ASM practices within Consortium member organizations. As appropriate, the Consortium publishes externally in the public domain to influence the global adoption of ASM solution concepts. The Consortium has recently increased its focus on external communications, and will begin public release of guideline documents in late 2008.

Effective Operating Practices

The ASM Consortium has identified 7 categories of practices that impact ASM performance, based on assessment of effective operations practices in plant studies. Consortium research and development focuses on issues in these areas, and typically involves testing and observation at member company sites. These seven focus areas that fundamentally help customers improve safety, reliability and efficiency of their process operations. In each area the Consortium develops examples, research and analysis, develop product recommendations, and in some cases guidelines to help implement solutions.

1. Understanding Abnormal Situations: This area focuses on issues that can lead to a better understanding of current incident causes. These factors are widely distributed but can provide insight to reduce future abnormal situations, and to prepare operations teams to efficiently and accurately handle the abnormal situations that do occur.

2. Organizational Roles, Responsibilities and Work Processes: This area focuses on the impact of management structure and policy on the ability of the operations team to prevent and respond appropriately to abnormal situations.

3. Knowledge & Skill Development: This area focuses on the impact of training and skill development, in anticipating and coping with abnormal situations.

4. Communications: This area focuses on communications issues among plant personnel and with the use of information technology under normal, abnormal and emergency situations.

5. Procedures: This area focuses on all aspects of procedures used to accomplish important tasks at an industrial site, particularly start-up and shut-down.

6. Work Environment: This category focuses on the impact of the control building environments for effective operations.

7. Process Monitoring Control & Support Applications: This area focuses on automation technologies for effective operations.

Guideline Documents

The ASM Consortium has produced four key guideline documents. The Consortium is planning to make a subset of these guidelines publicly available in 2008.

*Effective Operator Display Design
** Display Types
** Content and Task Appropriate Information
** Style
** Layout
** Navigation
** Use of Color
** Use of Symbols and Process Connections
** Use Text and Numbers
** Interation with the Display
** Alarm Configuration
** Audible Annunciation of Alarms
** Visual Annunciation of Alarms
** Training
** On-line Guidance
** Design Methodology
** Management of Change

*Effective Procedural Practices
** Content and Format
** Procedure Development
** Deploying Procedures Effectively
** Maintaining Procedures
** Training

*Effective Alarm Management Practices
** Management Principles
** Alarm System Design
** Implementation
** Lifecycle Management
** Training

*Effective Operations Practices covers the 7 areas described in the preceding section.

Example Impact of Effective ASM Practices

A paper was presented at the AIChE Safety Session in 1998 which described how a member company was applying the ASM Consortium's Best Practices to the design of an ethylene plant. In Sept, 2000 that ethylene plant was successfully started-up and the design work was put into service.

* New User Interface Part of the implementation included an operator interface based on the findings from an early research prototype system called “AEGIS” – abnormal event guidance and information system. The approach prototyped in AEGIS included a structured multiple window format, with integrated trends, yoking, effective use of color/symbols/organized. The interface is designed to help the operator maintain big-picture awareness of the plant, with the capability to drill down to increasing levels of detail.

* Experimental Evaluation Once the plant was operating with the ASM style display, the next research question the Consortium considered was how to quantify how effective this design was, compared to a traditional DCS approach. (Traditional DCS displays have generally used a single window per screen, with the operator having several screens across the console.)

* Performance Impact In a controlled experiment using multiple abnormal situation scenarios on operator training simulators, operators using the advanced display were able to detect the abnormal event before any alarms rang in about 1/2 of the scenarios. Comparing this response to the traditional displays, operators with traditional displays were able to detect the event before an alarm only 10% of the time. Across the scenarios tested, the advanced displays result in a 38% improvement in the "detection capability". Once the abnormal event was detected; the success rate for "addressing the abnormality" & returning to normal was also improved by the advanced displays. The overall improvement in "resolution" was 26% across all four scenarios.

* Economic Value The project team then used the results from the scenario testing to drive an economic analysis of the impact of unresolved abnormal events. To do this, the site provided 6 years of incident data from the traditional display unit. This gives an approximate probability distribution for the various event types included in the test. Each of these incident types also included an economic impact assessment. To estimate the range of potential economic impact, the team conducted a Monte Carlo simulation using the estimated probabilities from the historical incident data. This simulation approach gives a distribution of potential financial impacts, given the prior distribution of abnormal events. From this distribution, we can estimate the “most likely” impact by looking at a summary statistic for the distribution. The example site was a 1.8 Blb/year ethylene plant. The estimated median economic value in reducing the impact of abnormal situations at this site was $800,000 US Dollars per year.


The Consortium grew out of a group called the Alarm Management Task Force, which was a customer advisory board led by Honeywell in 1990. The initial goal of the AMTF was to improve the alarm management functionality of Honeywell’s TDC3000 platform. One of the side effects of a flexible digital automation system was the rapid growth of configured alarms. The alarm volume began to overwhelm process operators. The AMTF suggested in 1992 that Honeywell investigate customer needs in addressing a bigger problem - they referenced this as abnormal situation management. In 1993, Honeywell and 4 customer companies (from the alarm management task force) formed a study team to investigate the nature of the abnormal situation management problem and define solution requirements. This team included Amoco, Chevron, Exxon, and Shell. In 1994, the ASM Consortium was formed as a formal legal entity with 5 additional customer companies - BP, Mobil, NOVACOR, Texaco, and Star Enterprises.

The ASM Consortium developed a research proposal and was granted funding from the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 1994. The Consortium received 6.6 million in funding from NIST for researching and prototyping ASM solutions. This initial research effort developed the solution concept for a suite of integrated software that would allow operators to manage abnormal situations.

After completion of the NIST research, the consortium members decided to self fund continuation of the work to field prototypes of the solution concepts developed in the NIST research program. The consortium has continued to operate in 3 year programs since 1999, working to further refine the products and focus on deploying solutions across operations. Phillips Petroleum became a member in the year 2000, Sasol in 2006, BP rejoined in 2007 and Petronas also joined in 2007.

External links

* [http://www.asmconsortium.com ASM Consortium web site]

ASM Consortium Member Company Links

* [http://www.bp.com British Petroleum]
* [http://www.conocophillips.com ConocoPhillips]
* [http://www.exxonmobil.com ExxonMobil]
* [http://www.honeywell.com Honeywell International]
* [http://www.applyhcs.com Human Centered Solutions]
* [http://psc.tamu.edu Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center]
* [http://www.www.ntu.edu.sg Nanyang Technological University]
* [http://www.petronas.com Petronas]
* [http://www.sasol.com Sasol]
* [http://www.shell.com Shell]
* [http://www.ucla.edu University of California Los Angeles]
* [http://www.ttsperformancesystems.com TTS Performance Systems]

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